Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Rock of Ages might make you throw up…in your pants.

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I was a big fan of Whose Line Is It Anyway?, an improv show which originally aired on British television from 1988-98 and then got an American face list and ran from 1998-2006. One of the games was built around the actors being given a movie scene to act out. The gimmick, and much of the humor, grew out of the “director” constantly interrupting the scene to tell the actors to perform in a different style.

Alan Shankman, the director of Rock of Ages, thought it would be fun to direct an entire movie that way. Each actor was given different instructions about how to perform in the film. The two leads, Julianne Hough and Diego Boneta, were asked to play their roles like they were in a made-for-tweens Disney television show. While it made them into eye-rolling caricatures, at least their performances matched the script’s completely clichéd story. Small-town girl heads to Hollywood with a solitary suitcase and dreams of stardom. She barely steps off the bus when she’s mugged, rescued by a cute boy, and is offered a job as a waitress at a bar. The wide-eyed pair immediately become a couple, only to be torn apart by a misunderstanding worthy of every lame sitcom plot twist ever written. I won’t tell you the ending – not because I’m worried about spoilers, but because you know how this wraps up already.

Rock of Ages trailer

Telling such a story could be funny if done with a campy, wink-wink, nod-nod approach. This apparently was how Alec Baldwin and Russell Brand were told to play it. I don’t need to hear them singing again any time soon, but they get the only laugh-out-loud moment in the movie when they duet on an REO Speedwagon song.

Speaking of singing, there are major problems, which really isn’t a good omen for a musical. Julianne and Diego are at least consistent in that they sing the same way they act. They seem unaware that the songs they’re belting out are rock songs, not Broadway show tunes as interpreted by the cast of Glee (which Shankman has directed, by the way).

This brings us to Tom Cruise. Some are touting his performance as rock star Stacee Jaxx as Oscar-worthy. His is definitely the most interesting role in the movie, even when he distracts with the over-the-top intensity he brings to everything he does. He gets a scene with a Rolling Stone reporter where you glimpse the pain and loneliness of a celebrity with the status of, oh, I don’t know – Tom Cruise? It’s the kind of moment you wish a whole movie were built around. Then he breaks into Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive” and the magic is over.

Cruise’s performance is actually the most maddening. Don’t believe the hype about him having a backup career as a rocker if the acting thing doesn’t work out. It was very considerate of Poison’s Bret Michaels to let Cruise raid his 1980s wardrobe. Cruise also has the whip-an-audience-into-a-frenzy stage moves down. That doesn’t means Cruise can approximate the vocal growl of the era’s hair bands and arena rockers. Considering how widely panned many of those singers were, it doesn’t bode well for soundtrack sales to have an album loaded with second-rate versions of those songs. I mean, has anyone ever said, “Oh, sure, Guns N’ Roses’ ‘Paradise City’ was good, but wouldn’t it be better if we let the star from Top Gun sing it?”

I’m not being completely fair. We do get Mary J. Blige’s pipes in the movie. Unfortunately, her trademark “no one can sing like Aretha, except maybe me” style simply embarrasses everyone else. If only she sang every line of her performance as the streetwise nightclub owner with a heart of gold. She definitely doesn’t need to become a singer with a “hyphenated” career.

Speaking of hyphens, Catherine Zeta-Jones is one of those lucky people who gets terms like “Oscar-winning” and “Tony-award winner” tacked on to her name. She won’t be adding any new trophies to her collection this time around. She plays a politician’s wife bent on cleaning up the Hollywood Strip. It’s the least interesting character in the show – and she’s got plenty of competition.

The movie was summed up for me with a medley of her leading her religious flock in singing “We’re Not Gonna Take It” while Brand rallies the troops for “We Built This City.” Blender magazine called the latter the worst song of all time. When cameos from Sebastian Bach (of the long-disappeared Skid Row), a white-haired Kevin Cronin (who still helms REO Speedwagon), and Debbie Gibson rate as one of a movie’s highlights, the movie has serious problems.

One of Baldwin’s lines in the movie roughly sums it up: “I just threw up…In my pants…Through my ass.”

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