A jukebox musical is the epitome of reverse-engineered entertainment. Take a set of songs linked together by a common thread arrange them for Broadway belters and fill in the gaps with enough narrative to convince the audience they're not sitting through a large-scale cover band concert. Silly satisfying and familiar — the perfect combination for a crowd-pleaser. Rock of Ages the big screen adaptation of the hit stage musical manages to make the simplistic formula feel even lazier. Starting off like a full-on '80s movie spoof Rock of Ages quickly loses footing with a bombardment of overproduced tunes lip-synced by its celebrity cast. Simply put: it doesn't rock. At all.
The film opens with small town Kansas gal Sherrie Christian (Julianne Hough) hopping on a bus to make it big in Hollywood. There's a glimmer of hope as she duets Night Ranger's "Sister Christian" with a bus driver — maybe Rock of Ages really will be this fun and absurd. But when Sherrie arrives at The Bourbon Room the city's premiere rock club and only second to Disneyland as the least threatening place in L.A. the movie spins out of control. Sherrie quickly strikes up a relationship with bartender/aspiring musician Drew (Diego Boneta) is hired by club owner Dennis Dupree (Alec Baldwin) and his second-in-command Lonny (Russell Brand) and becomes entangled in the joint's big attempt to stay afloat: the legendary Stacee Jaxx's (Tom Cruise) last concert before going solo.
Sticking with Sherrie as she explores the crazy hair metal scene is fun but director Adam Shankman (Hairspray Bedtime Stories) and his team of writers insist on piling more and more stuff on to Rock of Ages shoulders. There's politician wife Patricia Whitmore (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and her campaign against The Bourbon Room. There's Rolling Stone reporter Constance Sack (Malin Åkerman) who hopes to land one more interview with Jaxx. There's Jaxx's manager Paul Gill (Paul Giamatti) who responds to the fading rock scene with ambitions of starting a boy band with Drew. Anything that can open the door for more songs — pointless as the plot points may be — Shankman throws into the shuffle. Unfortunately the ears can only take so much autotune.
The upside of the clunky script is some genuinely funny moments souped up by the comedic prowess of the supporting cast (a baboon named HeyMan throwing bottles at Giamatti Cruise singing "I Want to Know What Love Is" into Ackerman's butt). Hough and Boneta have nothing to contribute to Rock of Ages hammy leads with no material who pale in comparison to their '80s romantic predecessors. But the rest of the crew throw up sign of the horns and try their best to crank up the craziness Baldwin and Brand making a case for a spin-off with their wacky rapport. A musical number in which the duo finally realizes their passion for one another would have made a great Funny or Die video but padded with the filler of Rock of Ages it has no room to shine. Even Cruise who kills whenever he's musing full rock star mode struggles to make the paper thin Stacee Jaxx work in his musical moments. The recordings are flat and lifeless automatically putting a strain on the performers.
The music and the movies of the '80s share a similar aesthetic. They're over-the-top they're hot and sweaty and they're about not giving a damn. Raw fun. Rock of Ages fails to capture that feel in both visuals and song blowing out the flame of every lighter-waving moment with its stale recreation. For an energetic entertaining two hours of classic rock tunes stick to karaoke.
If a major motion picture studio gave you $50 million to make the movie of your choice what would it be like? If you’re producers Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner and writers Simon Pegg and Nick Frost it’d be a loving lampoon of geek culture and an homage to the films of the Spielberg/Lucas revolution but nostalgia is both an advantage and disadvantage in director Greg Mottola’s Paul.
Pegg and Frost star as a pair of nerds from across the pond who fulfill lifelong dreams when they fly to San Diego for the annual Mecca of nerdom Comic-Con. The doofy duo extend their trip to tour America’s extraterrestrial hot spots including Area 51 where they pick up an unexpected alien hitchhiker on the run from the proverbial men in black. Across the country they go getting into trouble picking up more passengers and building bromantic bonds as the little green man Paul inches closer to his escape from planet Earth and the shadowy government official who has been exploiting his knowledge of the universe since he crash landed in Wyoming over 60 years ago.
Fan-favorite filmmakers since 2004’s Shaun of the Dead Pegg and Frost have been making geek chic for years now and continue to create identifiable roles for themselves while finding humorous ways to write their like-minded friends into their movies. Their collection of wacky characters is charming if incredibly derivative but for better or worse they are the heart and soul of the film. Jason Bateman Kristen Wiig Bill Hader and Jo Lo Truglio turn in fun performances but I expected a bit more from the Jane Lynch David Koechner and Sigourney Weaver cameos. Still Seth Rogen’s vocal performance as Paul adds significant layers to an already adorable alien and enlivens the adequately rendered CG character.
The comedy is surprisingly sweet and doesn’t bite like Mottola’s Superbad though there are enough religious jabs and signs of anti-establishment fervor to call it mildly subversive. Lack of laughs isn’t the issue here; lack of originality is. Mottola is too dependent on pop-culture references and inside jokes pertaining to E.T. Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind so much so that the film ultimately becomes a parody of itself as its storyline mirrors that of Steven Spielberg’s massive 1982 blockbuster (in this world the movie mogul actually consults the incarcerated alien for inspiration for his beloved family film). While these nods are all amusing they’re not enough to carry the film and Mottola/Frost/Pegg offer little else. At its worst Paul will give you a reason to revisit those classic sci-fi staples and remember the good old days. At best it provides a few mindless chuckles and gives you good reason to give the geek next to you a great big hug.
Dreamer is another one of those family films--based on a true story no less--that makes you feel guilty for not liking it because it means so well. The film revolves around the Cranes who have worked on their Kentucky horse farm for generations. But gifted horseman Ben Crane (Kurt Russell) loses his love for the job when the farm hits hard times. His estranged father Pop (Kris Kristofferson) feels like his son has given up unnecessarily. Even Ben’s young daughter Cale (Dakota Fanning) can’t get through to her dad. The only way this family can heal is by helping an injured horse named Sonya get ready for a seemingly impossible goal: to win the Breeders' Cup Classic. Say it together: “Awww!” At least the film gets it half right in its casting. Russell is perfect as the beleaguered Ben a man who needs a little inspiration to get back on track and he thankfully never takes it over the top. Same goes for Kristofferson who is aptly crusty and unwilling to give his son an inch--that is until his granddaughter and that darned horse melt his heart. And the family resemblance is uncanny; apparently the two actors have been told quite often how much they look like each other. The one misstep here is Fanning. Yes she is an extraordinarily gifted actress for her age but Cale should have been played by a happy sunny child. The oh-so-serious Fanning doesn’t really qualify. Also Elisabeth Shue as the mom is all wrong. A horse farmer’s wife? Please. Writer-director John Gatins takes a big gamble making his directorial debut with a movie about an underdog horse. First there’s the underdog part. This year seems a bit saturated with the plot device what with films like Cinderella Man and most recently Greatest Game Ever Played. Second there’s the whole horse thing. It’s just going to be hard to top the Oscar-nominated Seabiscuit--the quintessential true horse-racing movie to beat them all. True Dreamer is based on a true story and is nicely--albeit conventionally--framed. But the film isn’t unique in any way. It’s the same feel-good family stuff we’ve been swallowing all year. See? I told you I’d feel guilty for knocking it.