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.
As dean of a small college Coleman Silk (Anthony Hopkins) has made a nice life for himself--until a false accusation of racism ruins his career and he loses his wife to a brain aneurysm. Suddenly Coleman has nothing--until he embarks on an intensely sexual relationship with Faunia Farley (Nicole Kidman) a local woman with an abusive ex-husband Lester (Ed Harris) who won't leave her alone. The intensity of Coleman's love for Faunia leads him to reveal his long-held secret: He has been passing himself off as Jewish and white for most of his adult life but in reality he is a light-skinned African-American. From there a series of flashbacks to the 1940s introduce us to a younger love-struck Coleman (Wentworth Miller) and reveal the events that led him to his fateful decision. Somehow Coleman's deep dark secret isn't as shocking as it's probably meant to be but the relationship between Faunia and Coleman is--especially when it slips into the danger zone with Lester breathing down their necks.
Wentworth Miller who makes his film debut as the younger Coleman does an amazing job with his role establishing Coleman's quiet yet fierce determination to live a life free of intolerance. And as ever Hopkins is the consummate professional with flashes of intense passion and brilliance in his steely eyes. One does have to get over the fact that a Welsh actor has been cast as an elderly light-skinned African-American but if Hopkins can give nuance to a declaration of how Viagra has changed his character's life (ick) he can pull off the race thing easily enough. Kidman as the dour Faunia also has some stunning moments easily sinking to the depressive depths required of her character--not surprising considering she won the Oscar doing the same thing in The Hours. What really makes you clench your teeth though is when the two of them get together on screen--in the biblical sense. These Oscar winners are so sorely miscast as tortured lovebirds that their sexual moments make you squirm in your seat. It's not the age difference; there's simply no spark between them.
"We leave a stain a trail and imprint " Philip Roth writes in his novel the third in a trilogy on postwar America. "It's the only way to be here." The author goes on to explore myriad themes around this main premise including how we leave our marks how our decisions have consequences and how people can find one another under the direst circumstances. Unfortunately these big ideas get lost in translation on the big screen and the film suffers from adaptation blues. Director Robert Benton and screenwriter Nicholas Meyer gives Roth's ideas voice only through Nathan Zuckerman (Gary Sinise) the reclusive author Coleman asks to write his life story and even that artistic character talks more about how sex is clouding Coleman's judgment than about his own life or ideology. Ultimately Meyer focuses his script too heavily on the guarded Coleman leaving the other characters too little developed. Why has Nathan secluded himself away from the world? What haunts him? Sinise does what he can with the character but there's too little background. The same goes for Faunia. Although she describes in one monologue after another the horrors of her life--she was abused as a girl and lost her two children in a terrible fire--Faunia's hardships seem distant and it's hard to connect with her character. Only the wounded Lester a Vietnam veteran seems made of real emotions and desires--he's filled with hatred and passion--and if he makes only a brief appearance in the film he certainly leaves a mark.