I know that in the history of cinema there have probably been worse movies than Rock of Ages. I’m just having a hard time trying to think of one right now.
Pulverizing, excruciating, incompetent—the pejoratives finally fail me. An hour into this thing, I turned to a colleague and groaned aloud: “I want to murder myself.”
A bit of backstory: Rock of Ages is based on the smash Broadway hit, which used cheeseball 1980’s hair-band anthems as the template for yet another jukebox musical. It’s the kind of glossy, corporate turd that you can imagine a shit-ton of Midwestern tourists eating up and then binging on chicken wings at a Times Square chain restaurant as soon as the show is over. Everything here has been so sanitized for mass consumption, Director Adam Shankman should keep his ServSave Certificate next to his DGA card.
Julianne Hough, the Dancing with the Stars vet who played the 35-year-old teenager in the recent Footloose remake stars as just a small-town girl, living in a lonely world. She took the midnight train (actually it was a bus) from podunk nowhere, but at least her fellow passengers were kind enough to launch into an awful rendition of Night Ranger’s “Sister Christian,” just so we all know how pure she is.
She lands a job at the Bourbon Room, one of those crazy rock ’n’ roll clubs run by a startlingly miscast Alec Baldwin, who keeps Russell Brand around as his comic-relief lackey. I daresay Baldwin has never seemed so adrift, wearing a terrible wig and vaguely humoring the awful material. He’s the consummate urbane New Yorker out of his league as a sleazebag Sunset Strip loser. Looking like he’s suffering from irritable bowel syndrome in cheetah-print shirts, Baldwin suffers mightily through the movie’s barrage of bad hair days, eventually making out with Russell Brand in a number that might as well be called: “Gays, Aren’t They Hilarious?”
The entire future of the Bourbon Room depends on the whims of one Stacee Jaxx, a rock ’n’ roll icon played with no shortage of commitment by Tom Cruise. The hardest-working man in show business, Cruise has recently demonstrated that he will dangle his 50-year-old self off giant skyscrapers just to amuse audiences, but he brings that same relentless go-for-broke energy to Stacee, and I must repeat myself after what I said during Tropic Thunder: He’s a relentless performer, but there’s nothing more painful than watching Cruise try to be funny. His laser-focused, tireless work ethic is like Kryptonite for comedy. He’s just exhausting to watch.
So we have the blah-blah-blah plot of Julianne Hough meeting the charisma-deficient Diego Boneta, and they both look like they’re about to fall in love amid all the nonsense and sing-alongs, and then the movie does something seriously sadistic. I thought Rock of Ages was finally over, but I’d only seen the first act of a Broadway show. An hour into this thing, the movie resets itself and starts over again from scratch.
I feel like I watched it twice. The gob-smacking 123-minute running time finds room for Catherine Zeta-Jones as an uptight, Tipper Gore wannabe—the crusading wife of a local politico (Bryan Cranston) who’s too busy getting handcuffed with rosary beads and spanked with votive candles by naughty nuns to pay much attention to her anti-rock plight. Where did this subplot come from, and what kind of director gets a bad performance out of Bryan Cranston?
Shankman did a fairly decent job helming the musical adaptation of Hairspray , but he’s at a loss with this shoddy material. The jukebox mash-ups of cruddy ’80s songs are set on sorry soundstages without a whit of light or transcendence, and the entire film is bathed in the same ugly neon as Joel Schumacher’s Batman sequels. An early scene with Zeta-Jones singing Pat Benetar in a church is granted fewer than six extras, and the movie’s lazy cheap-o approach becomes inadvertently hilarious.
Our bland lead, Diego Boneta, hangs out at Tower Records and makes a few speeches about how rock ’n’ roll is salvation, but the ersatz re-arranged Broadway showtune versions of these songs make the opposite of an argument for the music. It doesn’t help that they’re all Auto-Tuned to death and performed by a cast that frankly can’t sing their way out of a paper bag.
It says something about Rock of Ages that when Quiet Riot’s “Cum on Feel the Noize” plays over the closing credits, the audience breathes a sigh of relief. At last, this is real rock ’n’ roll? And I’ll meet you at Applebee’s for some wings after the movie.
Rock of Ages
Director: Adam Shankman
Starring: Julianne Hough, Diego Boneta and Tom Cruise