Friday, June 15, 2012

Rock Of Ages

Turning Bubble Gum Reminiscence Into Raw, Stark 80s

Rock solid: Tom Cruise as Stacee Jaxx in Adam Shankman's comedy-musical-romance "Rock Of Ages". 
David James/Warner Brother

Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Friday, June 15, 2012

The Eighties!  Leg-warmers, Jane Fonda work-out tapes, "Footloose", "Back To the Future", "E.T.", Gordon Gekko.  Luke Skywalker's father.  Big-hair era.  Alex Keaton.  Michael Jackson.  Whitney Houston.  Joan Jett.  Pat Benatar.  Laura Branigan.  Madonna.  Bueller.  Bueller.  Hip-hop at its freshest.  Songs with an alternately earthy and synthetic feel, like Foreigner's warm, ethereal and sincere ballad "Waiting For A Girl Like You".  Some of these staples of an oft-ridiculed decade come alive in Adam Shankman's tepid musical-comedy-romance "Rock Of Ages", in theaters across the U.S. and Canada today, based on the hit Broadway musical, as replication of it rather than a movie reinvention of its own making.

The setting of the film is a semi-lurid Los Angeles (in the play, Miami) on the Sunset Strip, where Sherrie (Julianne "Footloose" Hough), a Midwestern gal, has arrived to pursue her Hollywood dreams.  Her accidental destination, rock-nightclub Bourbon Room -- a PG-13 CBGB's -- is targeted by a family group (think Tipper Gore's '80s group) led by Patricia Whitmore (Catherine Zeta-Jones) protesting "filthy, heathen" rock and roll played at the club.  Sin!  Immorality!  Sex!  No!  No!  Cast such wickedness out of thy sight!  Burnout rocker Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise), once rock's demon king now forced to be a solo star (with a pet monkey) in the flickering twilight of his career, is the group's whipping boy.  Bourbon bartender Drew (singing sensation Diego Boneta) waits for his music talents to be recognized, and reluctantly so by Bourbon owner Dennis Dupree (Alec Baldwin) and his partner Lonny (Russell Brand).  Sherrie and Drew will meet.  Eyes grow wide.  Songs get sung.  Dances will be danced.  Love will percolate. 

The Eighties was known as the "me" decade: I get mine, you get yours, leave me alone, not in my back yard.  "Rock Of Ages" shows us a collection of souls whose centers are polluted with self-satisfaction, nasty ambition and cutthroat attitudes.  For a time Mr. Shankman ("Hairspray") has his finger on the pulse of this collection of cynical, self-centered and indulgent opportunists, ranging from all of the above characters to a conniving Rolling Stone reporter (Malin Akerman), Patricia Whitmore's philandering L.A. mayor husband (Bryan Cranston), and a promoter-agent (Paul Giamatti) who puts boxing promoters like Bob Arum and Don King to shame.

The film's first hour is remarkably flat, evoking bubble gum pop-musical fare: all air and surface, with none of the raw, rude and sometimes outlandish atmospheres that defined a decade.  The actors are earnest but in watching here (and having not seen the play) I felt they were trying to evoke Chris D'Arienzo's musical rather than the era or making their own movie.  The main issue is that the movie's stage is too small and too compact for this large canvas of characters, and the energy level lags despite good performances by Mr. Baldwin and the enthusiastic Mr. Boneta.  Mr. D'Arienzo co-wrote the screenplay with actor Justin Theroux and Allan Loeb, but the play's theatrical stamp permeates the film without penetrating or galvanizing its audience.

"Rock Of Ages" on the big screen feels old and stale despite bursts of color and vivid choreography in a few scenes.  While Mr. Shankman's "Hairspray", another film adaptation of a hit musical, had more bite, electricity and purpose, his "Rock Of Ages", for all its soapy cutesiness, exhausts and is as superficial as the motives of its players.  Recent films like the 1980s Broadway musical-based "Dreamgirls", while airy to a degree, had a bit more substance and resonance, as did "Take Me Home Tonight", a stronger, non-musical look at the era.  Even "Hot Tub Time Machine", a guilty pleasure, made funnier, more vibrant mincemeat out of the 1980s, bringing a fondness, affection and wit Mr. Shankman's film lacks.

Until Mr. Cruise's Stacee Jaxx emerges (the film teases his arrival), "Rock Of Ages" goes through the motions.  Mr. Cruise's strong work here as a Bret Michaels-Axl Rose hybrid sprinkled with a cheeky dash of an earlier era in Jim Morrison turns the film's tide, supplying a gravitas and darker undertone the film doesn't work hard enough to deserve.  The air of the film is heavier, mustier and closer to the sweat, sex, loneliness and desolation that Stacee Jaxx and the actual rockers of the 1980s were part of and sang about.  It's the kind of performance Academy members generally nominate, and Mr. Cruise might find himself on such a shortlist early next year.

Mr. Cruise, who can never be accused of not working hard, makes the actors around him better in "Rock Of Ages", and his actual singing of 80s hits from rock groups Def Leopard, Poison and Journey offers him a good side gig should he ever need it.  The actor, himself a staple of iconic 1980s films ("Risky Business", "Top Gun", "Rain Man") wears the layers of Stacee Jaxx well, giving him a physical, palpable presence that punctures the film's plastic karaoke surface.  Stacee is a weathered, battered lizard who still breathes, slithers and writhes sex but has a wounded heart whose pain is even deeper. 

Sometimes Mr. Cruise excels in smaller, ensemble roles ("The Outsiders", "Magnolia", "Austin Powers' Goldmember", "Lions For Lambs", "Tropic Thunder") more so than in roles where the stage is entirely his ("The Firm", "Eyes Wide Shut", "The Last Samurai", "War Of The Worlds"), where he looks limited at times.  Mr. Cruise is a better actor than he's given credit for, and while his range may not be appreciable his ability to tackle a spectrum of characters and make them interesting is.  Mr. Cruise's Jaxx is an utterly unselfconscious portrayal that belongs in another film. 

Stacee Jaxx is the only figure honest enough to call a spade a spade and reexamine his life, and Mr. Cruise almost single-handedly brings this film back from the dead, his fascinating work in it making "Rock Of Ages" an average entertainment.  Mary J. Blige as Justice is here almost as an afterthought, looking more like Thelma Houston or Gloria Gaynor than a 1980s icon.  Ms. Blige is good, but her brief entrance in the film's final third is belated, tacked-on perhaps as a goodwill service or box-office calculation to lure in some additional black audience members who may otherwise have skipped the film, ala Jennifer Hudson's late arrival in "Sex And The City"

The Eighties may rock on in its own defiant and enduring way, but "Rock Of Ages" dances on dinosaur legs not diamond memories.

Cameos by a rocker or two.

"Rock Of Ages" is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association Of America for sexual content, suggestive dancing, some heavy drinking, and language.  The film's running time is two hours and three minutes.  Also in IMAX.

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