Movie Review: Rock of Ages
The Charlotte Observer
When “Rock of Ages” remembers it’s supposed to be a cartoon, it’s a noisy, sweaty, giddy ball of fun. When it suddenly develops a conscience or tries to process a thought deeper than “I love rock ’n’ roll,” it trips over its own feet. It vacillates between popcorn silliness and faux profundity for two hours, until it finally runs out of breath.
Like the 2006 Broadway show on which it’s based, it tells the story of star-struck kids through ’80s rock songs. Small-town Oklahoman Sherrie Christian (Julianne Hough) and Detroit ex-pat Drew Boley (Diego Boneta) have come to Los Angeles to break into the music business, and both end up working at a beloved but seedy club run by Dennis (Alec Baldwin).
A sleazy politician (Bryan Cranston) wants to tear down the Sunset Strip on behalf of a rich developer pal, and his conservative Christian wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) wants soul-stealing rockers sent to Hell, literally and metaphorically. They plan to evict Dennis for non-payment of rent, and he pins his hopes for recovery on a benefit concert by Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise).
Stacee’s character perfectly exemplifies how the movie goes right, then wrong.
Cruise plays him as a burnt-out, lizard-eyed creep, who offers every woman his flicking tongue. Stacey seduces a Rolling Stone reporter (Malin Akerman) and treats his manager (Paul Giamatti) and club owners like dirty newspapers, stepping on them when he passes by.
So far, so true to the original Broadway material. But the play’s Stacee ends up fleeing to Uruguay, facing a charge of statutory rape, to the strains of “Renegade,” and you know Tom Cruise isn’t going to play a character like that. His version has to have an “Aha!” moment sparked by the critical article in Rolling Stone, then turn into a good guy and arena-filling rocker again. (Not that Cruise’s portrayal changes, though.)
In “Hairspray,” Shankman found a way to deal with serious issues while maintaining a light-hearted, peppy tone. He opens “Rock” in the same style, as strangers on a cross-country bus spontaneously sing “Sister Christian.”
But he can’t, or won’t, sustain that tone here. So Stacee grinds the reporter to the sounds of “I Want to Know What Love Is,” and we don’t know whether to be amused or disgusted. (We don’t even know why women faint at his feet when he turns his reptile gaze on them, but they do.)
Hough and Boneta have the right naiveté, appealing voices and innocent chemistry together: They’re G-rated fairy-tale characters dodging villainy in a PG-rated world.
Stacey doesn’t sleep with Sherrie, as in the play; she remains as virginal as a sleeping beauty waiting to be awakened by the perfect guitar chord. But this is the kind of movie where people have sex without taking off their pants, nobody expects pole dancers in a “gentleman’s club” to remove clothes, and the gay romance between Dennis and his sidekick (Russell Brand) has to be played for giggles.
The end credits say the stars did their own singing, all of it satisfying, and the music holds up powerfully and beautifully after three decades. It’s so good, in fact, that I wish someone had simply filmed the show that put it all together in the first place.