Rock of Ages

In the interest of full disclosure, I should say up front that I didn’t like most of the songs in “Rock of Ages” when they were new, in the ’80s, and there was little reason to think I would find them improved by karaoke performances surrounded by a makeshift plot. There is only so much of “Paradise City” and “Here I Go Again” and “Hit Me with Your Best Shot” that I can enjoy, and I reached that threshold long ago.

Nonetheless, there’s more to a musical than the songs. With a good story, a good script, and some good performances, the movie version of this Broadway hit could have been nothin’ but a good time, just as the live show is purported to be. (I haven’t seen it.) But whatever charms it had on the stage have apparently been lost in the transition, leaving us with a tedious, tacky lump whose tone ranges haphazardly from sincerity to self-awareness to sappiness.

It’s set in 1987 at a fictional club called the Bourbon Room on L.A.’s Sunset Strip. Here a bland Oklahoma blonde named Sherrie (Julianne Hough) has come to seek her fortune as a singer, and here she will work as a waitress until her big break arrives. Joining her in this quest is Drew (Diego Boneta, striving unsuccessfully to repress his Mexican accent), a blank-faced guitarist and songwriter who idolizes the glam rockers of the day, especially Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise), lead singer of Arsenal. That band got its start at the Bourbon Room back in the day, so as a favor to the club’s aging, long-haired owner, Dennis Dupree (Alec Baldwin), they will do their final show here in a few days, after which Stacee Jaxx will go solo.

Assisted by club manager Lonny (Russell Brand, playing to type), Dennis contends with the nightly hassles of rowdy crowds, loud bands, and diminishing profits. His latest headache is an ongoing protest against his and the other clubs by a group of church ladies who believe rock ‘n’ roll is satanic. The city’s wormy mayor (Bryan Cranston), running for reelection, has enlisted his busybody wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones, striving unsuccessfully to repress her Welsh accent) to beat the drum for cleaning up the city’s moral fiber.

I don’t know, and am not particularly interested in knowing, what behind-the-scenes events led to this decision, but for some reason the storyline of the movie bears only a loose resemblance to the stage version. The sole playwright, Chris D’Arienzo, is one of three men credited for the screenplay — and he’s not even listed first. That would be Justin Theroux, the actor and “Tropic Thunder” co-writer. (The third scribe is Allan Loeb, a veteran of recent unfunny debacles like “The Dilemma” and “Just Go with It.”) My point is, there has evidently been a lot of stage-to-screen revision, so it’s not even clear whether fans of the live show will enjoy the movie.

There are certain problems that probably couldn’t have been avoided. Like most jukebox musicals, this one suffers from the fact that the songs weren’t written with storytelling in mind. Most of these ditties were written to fit in smoothly on the radio rather than stand out, and are thus essentially interchangeable. They’re about wanting to rock and have a good time, or they’re about being in love. Drew and Sherrie sing “I’ve Been Waiting for a Girl Like You” while Stacee Jaxx and a Rolling Stone reporter (Malin Akerman) sing “I Want to Know What Love Is” — but it could have been the other way around, because both songs’ lyrics are generic enough to apply to either pair’s situation. The same is true for almost every other song in the film. One line from the chorus summarizes the message — “Nothing But a Good Time,” “Any Way You Want It,” “Don’t Stop Believin'” — and everything else is just filler.

(I’m not clear on the thinking behind the song choices, either. As celebrations of rock ‘n’ roll go, the soundtrack is awfully mild, with an abundance of Foreigner, REO Speedwagon, Journey, and Pat Benatar watering down the more thrashin’ songs by Guns ‘n’ Roses and Bon Jovi. Even the loose theme of “music from the 1980s” isn’t strictly applied; “Hit Me with Your Best Shot,” was recorded in 1979, and “More Than Words” was 1990. I’m starting to think the only requirement for inclusion was that 1) the filmmakers had to like the song and 2) the original artist had to agree to let them use it. But this is perhaps nit-picky, which is why I put it in parentheses, so you can ignore it. Sorry if you already read it.)

When the film is focused on Sherrie and Drew and their predictable dumb romance, it is deadly boring. The actors have no spark, separately or together, and their dialogue sounds like it was copied from a template. Yet they recite it earnestly, as if unaware of its cheesiness. The Broadway version apparently has its characters break the fourth wall, acknowledging the show’s kitschiness. We get none of that from Sherrie and Drew. These two are SERIOUS.

So thank goodness for Tom Cruise, Russell Brand, and Alec Baldwin! Cruise’s temperamental, hard-partying, constant-sex-having Stacee Jaxx — a man accompanied everywhere by a monkey named Hey Man and only barely controlled by a cynical manager (Paul Giamatti) — is yet another example of Cruise’s overwhelming star power and canny ability to choose projects. He plays Stacee as a parody of rockers like Axl Rose, but keeps it grounded enough that when he sings “Wanted Dead or Alive” — a song about the loneliness of being the world’s biggest rock star — you can believe some of the sentiment. His over-the-top goofy/sexy number with Malin Akerman is a highlight of the film, and a taste of how the whole movie should have been.

Meanwhile, Baldwin and Brand bring their own personal styles to their characters, earning laughs where laughs might not have otherwise been found. (Brand addresses a Bourbon Room crowd as “you hot, fecund soup of estrogen and testosterone.”) Like Cruise, these two get it. They’re aware of the material’s inherent insipidness, and they play it up like kids in a mud puddle. But even they can only do so much with impossibly bad dialogue like this:

“For a second I thought Kate Jackson from ‘Charlie’s Angels’ had walked into my club!”
“More like Michael Jackson!”
“He looks pale, doesn’t he?”

(Get it? Because it’s 1987!)

And I will never forget the moment when someone says “ciao” while departing and Brand’s response is: “I didn’t know he spoke Italian.” I can only assume that line fell out of the “Three Stooges” script and somebody at “Rock of Ages” picked it up.

The film was directed by Adam Shankman, whose screen version of the “Hairspray” musical was one of my favorite confections of 2007. “Rock of Ages” is similar in some ways, especially with the added subplot of do-gooders trying to shut down the style of music that the show celebrates. (Zeta-Jones’ embarrassing, unnecessary character isn’t in the Broadway version.) But without any big dance numbers to choreograph or high-spirited songs to showcase, Shankman is left to flounder. His lack of a clear vision for the movie’s tone — campy, satiric, straight-faced, or sincere — makes it more of a mess. Were it 30 minutes shorter and focused on Cruise, Brand, and Baldwin, it would almost be recommendable. But not like this. This is nothing like living in paradise.

C- (2 hrs., 3 min.; PG-13, moderate profanity, abundant sexual innuendo and suggestive dialogue and behavior.)

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