I like the premise of “The Rocker” so much — middle-aged wannabe rock star insinuates himself into his teenage nephew’s band — that I’m inclined to go easy on it solely out of good will. It’s likable enough, a lightweight rock ‘n’ roll comedy punctuated by several belly laughs — but those laughs are all in response to the one-liners, and mostly from one minor character (more on that later). The story, the central personalities, and the uninspired slapstick are bland.
The title wannabe is Robert “Fish” Fishman, played by Rainn Wilson (of TV’s “The Office”) in his first major film role. Fish was the drummer for Vesuvius, a mid-’80s heavy-metal band, but was kicked out on the eve of the group’s success. Now, two decades later, Vesuvius is huge and Fish is a bitter has-been (or, rather, never-was).
He gets a new shot at glory, though, as drummer of A.D.D., an emo band whose keyboard player is Fish’s chubby nephew Matt (Josh Gad). The lead singer and guitarist, sullen teen Curtis (Teddy Geiger), and bassist Amelia (Emma Stone) are reluctant, but Fish is actually really good on the kit, and he swears he can find them a gig.
The story’s trajectory from there is comfortable and familiar (some would say formulaic), and right in line with director Peter Cattaneo’s previous efforts, “The Full Monty” and “Lucky Break” (about prisoners who stage a musical as a cover for their escape plans). A YouTube video of Fish’s unusual drumming techniques earns the band some attention, followed by a record contract, followed by a tour. Fish seeks to make up for lost time by overdoing the rock star extravagances, while the kids remain fairly well adjusted to their new stardom. Curtis’ mom (Christina Applegate) and Fish are destined to find love, though that feels like an afterthought in the screenplay (by the husband-and-wife team of Maya Forbes and former “Simpsons” writer Wally Wolodarsky). Also afterthought-y: the obligatory puppy love between Amelia and Curtis. Matt, being overweight, is only permitted by movie rules to have a perfunctory romance with an adoring (and nameless) A.D.D. fan.
Wilson plays Fish with a mixture of Dwight Schrute’s no-nonsense prissiness and Ron Burgundy’s bravado. In fact, Wilson seems to have taken several classes at Comedy University from Professor Will Ferrell, particularly Drunken Loutish Overconfidence 101 and Gratuitous Tighty-Whitey Shots 400 (a graduate-level course). I would be very surprised if the script wasn’t waved in front of Ferrell at some point. At the very least, his name must have been invoked in the pitch meeting.
Cattaneo managed to assemble a terrific cast for this congenial but lackluster effort. In addition to those already named, we have Jane Lynch and Jeff Garlin as Matt’s parents; Will Arnett, Fred Armisen, and Bradley Cooper as Vesuvius’ band members; and Jason Sudeikis as a tooly record-label executive. Sadly, nearly everyone’s talents are wasted, or else used only in a couple of scenes.
The exception is Sudeikis, who gets the film’s best one-liners. His character is the kind of fake L.A. type who says things like “There’s a lotta biz buzz back in Hollyweird about you guys.” He flirts with Curtis’ mom, he butters up A.D.D., he generally acts like a douchebag — and he earns a solid laugh on almost every line. His delivery is impeccable, of course, but for some reason his character was written to be funnier than everyone else, too. He basically steals the show.
Am I allowed to like a comedy even though it didn’t make me laugh all that often? Technically, failing to inspire much laughter is a serious liability for a comedy. But “The Rocker,” while certainly not a hit, isn’t exactly a miss, either. It’s modestly entertaining, occasionally funny, and generally agreeable. I just don’t think Wilson should quit his day job yet. Surely being assistant (to the) regional manager is more fulfilling than this.
C+ (1 hr., 42 min.; )