Movie Review: Rock of Ages
It's Less A Rock Song Than a Funeral Dirge
By Tom Houseman
June 25, 2012
When the opening moment of a movie-musical makes you laugh, you have to sincerely hope that you are laughing with the movie, not at it. Sadly, this is not the case with Rock of Ages, the adaptation of the Broadway musical loaded with '80s rock hits. The music it is paying homage to is loud, brash, and outrageous, while the film is merely loud, featuring none of the fun or the intensity of the bands whose music is featured, from Joan Jett to Def Leppard to Journey. Rock of Ages cannot decide whether or not to take itself seriously or laugh at itself, and as a result it wanders in circles, with even the songs that puncture it often feeling out of place. Only believe half of what the Journey song “Don't Stop Believin'” says: fortunately this movie does end, but before it does it goes on and on and on and on.
There is a plot that hypothetically exists to move the film forward, but it is such a generic, obvious story, told in the most generic, obvious way, that it completely fails to build any momentum or gain any traction. Filled with cliches and tropes, the film progresses beat by beat exactly as you would expect it to, from the moment the pretty blonde girl gets on the bus from Oklahoma and the boy with big dreams meets the shady manager. There are no unexpected turns, as clearly the writers felt that the songs and the performances would be the driving factor in the film. They could not have been more wrong.
It would be impossible to find two more dull and bland actors than Julianne Hough and Diego Boneta to play the already fairly uninteresting protagonists. Their performances completely lack passion or chemistry, even when belting out '80s rock anthems, and their attempts at subtlety and nuance are so bad they are less funny than the film's actual attempts at humor. When working with dialogue like “are you asking me out on a date?” “... Yeah,” the actors really need to be able to carry their weight, not just a tune.
Sadly, as awful as Hough and Boneta are, they are not markedly worse than most of the other performers in the film. This is a movie that requires ridiculous, over-the-top performances, and yet very few of the actors seemed genuinely invested in their roles. Alec Baldwin in particular coasts through the entire movie, spouting lines as terrible as “taxes are so un-rock 'n' roll” as if they were something a normal person would say, while Russell Brand is content to toss out less than witty asides. Even Paul Giamatti fails to capitalize on the potential for humor in his clichéd sleazy music exec role, never pushing the part as far as it had the potential to go. Really there is only one actor who is willing to be ridiculous and absurd and stretch the boundaries of this silly, stupid film, and that is Tom Cruise.
Heap any superlative you want on Cruise and you will likely hit the mark, but I will settle on one word: extraordinary. With almost every other aspect of Rock of Ages being at best banal, listless, ordinary, Tom Cruise rises so far above that the rest of the film that it would need binoculars to see him. From the moment Cruise appears on screen you cannot take your eyes off of him, and not just because he is still very effective eye candy. Cruise makes everything around him better, elevates the performances of the actors next to him, and even his musical performances feel more organic to the story than any of the others.
The only other actor who appears to be trying close to as hard as Cruise is Catherine Zeta-Jones, which is a shame, because her part is so awful, so painfully one-dimensional, that the effort she puts into her performance only makes it more obvious that she is working with garbage. Cruise is given the only meaty role in the film and takes full advantage of it. Yet even his performance at times feels one-dimensional, which seems largely to be the fault of director Adam Shankman, who seems to push his actors to eschew nuance and be as obvious as possible at all times. Still, Cruise is largely responsible for the only genuinely entertaining scenes in the entire film.
It is never good when you can count the number of entertaining scenes in a movie on a peace sign, especially a movie that feels as long as Rock of Ages at a touch past two hours. This is a movie that desperately wants to make a splash, to make waves, to rock the boat, but it just ends up floating in a kiddie pool, face down. Rock of Ages is not tough and gritty, but instead comes off as just as fake and plastic as Hairspray, Shankman's last botched musical adaptation. And yet unlike Hairspray, Rock of Ages is not able to laugh at itself; there are no winks and nudges here, but instead the film's elbows remain firmly at its sides, and its eyes are glued shut. The result is not the bombastic wild ride that Shankman might have been attempting, but instead a lazy, lifeless, and boring movie.