Rock of Ages is by all measure well-intentioned and at least moderately effective as kindling for nostalgia, but campy musicals rely entirely on your willingness to bring the wood and extra hot dogs, dig the fire pit and make the sharp sticks – once you agree to accept ridiculous, undermining good fun, it’s all connect the dots acting in order to find something substantial to latch onto or risk missing the point of it all. You’re well advised to settle on the songs you love or loved, embrace the music that was an integral part of your life or at least background sounds to memory, and be content with the funny in cliché and innuendo. For some the musical is a perfect escape ship diversion, an opportunity to share in the collective caricature of sing-song, flim-flammery, famous faces stumbling through overly familiar, overly modulated scenes and scenarios about wide-eyed dreamers and worn out stars and sinners. And that might actually be enough for the film to live on, however fleeting in the moment, but the endless song and dance numbers begin to wear away from the start, the squeaky ease with which problems are solved by music never intended as such, and pretty soon all those memories succumb to muttering from actors that have no idea what they are doing. It would be impossible to enjoy this film if you’re not already a big fan of musicals, if you’re not already fond Tom Cruise on the periphery, surrounded by others pushing up his magnanimity Perhaps his embodying of famous front men, a little too much and often one-sided, gives sketchy enough and you’ll find some kind of joy here, otherwise Rock of Ages falls short, dwindles, not enough originality to be hopeful of its own shortcomings and self-congratulatory mayhem.
The only thing surprising about this film is really how bad it is – that and maybe how it got made at all, why no one on set or in the first production meeting stopped the horses and declared, “This is crap!” Anyone could have done it, any of the actors could have stopped long enough to pretend to tie their shoes, formulated an escape plan from one of their many other films – even the only moderately more successful ones – or feign stomach flu and locked themselves in the commode – but they didn’t. Instead they stood up too fast, let the blood rush back in, frozen in silence waiting for the ink on their contract to dry. Any number of them could have asked the million dollar question, “wait a minute, what’s that smell? Ricky you crap your pants?” “No Mr. Baldwin, its the script. Oh, and the director just walked into the room.” But even more mind numbing, even more painful than the salt jammed into the gaping wounds of my soul after sitting through this tooth extraction of all tooth extractions, is the middle-of-the-road reviews aggregated at Rottentomatoes. I mean what the hell people with the 47%? And my fellow critics, 51%? This kind of atrocity is the middle of your entertainment meter? I suppose the only certainty to be gleaned from the bleached bones of popular opinion is that there is no accounting for taste – no one is checking the litmus paper, no one cares about the fungus growing in the petri dish that could kill the whole planet – twice – and no one cares enough about changing the bombs of Hollywood, taking a stand, making a statement. I suppose that’s asking an awful lot from Saturday night date nights and middle of the week hooky trips. For me, I’m writing about this film to excise it from memory, to cauterize the wound, to get it out of my head and maybe in the process prevent others from the harm I experienced. I’m writing this in blood and tears.
Where does it go wrong? Almost everywhere. The fact that this film borrows heavily from other films is perfectly acceptable, even expected – the necessary and nonsensical musical homage to rock n’ roll that will never die but always does, the real musicians and the rest of them in their predetermined looks, the hair and slicker than eel polished personas, all of it – but the decision to go giddy up, stuck in tongue-and-cheek, playing with the idea someone was going to get the joke just falls flat – it’s aging rocker meets stiff movie executive in an elevator to talk about White Snake and Def Leopard meeting the bubble gum sweet girl and how that would be a rad movie they’d pay to see. Of course that is perhaps the biggest failure of all, the lost opportunity; that and blunt stereotypes and half-laughs with tooled, hackneyed characters that make the tired, worn smooth premise feel like a summons for jury duty, a red light camera ticket in the mail, an ingrown toenail – stale toast. Lost potential ranks pretty high on the list, opportunity to see Cruise go where he’s never been, the chance to just have fun and make the most of so much popular music, the stuff you maybe liked a little or too much, the songs you sing when no one else is around. Sadly it ends up like a bad love song by a has-been, aging rocker with an attitude:
..small town girl living in her small town world meets big stage falling star, broken people in a broken bar, small town boy joins in the dreaming, together they’ve got a shot at being uptown together but first everywhere success turns falling stars around..
It is one thing to sample and imitate, to take paths already taken and share in the collective spirit of familiar genres through homage, tribute and inspiration. When sampling becomes creased carbon copies that leave traces behind, funny dies on deaf ears and trying doesn’t make pretty it only goes so far to remind us not even T&A sells crappy – mostly. But you can’t blame one person, I mean we can and must call T.V. and short film director – mostly miscellaneous crew than anything else – Adam Shankman (Hairspray) to the carpet but he’s not alone. There are producers and crew to blame, hell even the cast should have known, but the real criminals are at New Line Cinema, Corner Store Entertainment, Material Pictures, Offspring Entertainment, Maguire Entertainment, Columbia TriStar Warner Films de Portugal, IMAX, and Village Films and Warner Bros. for not only making the film happen but readily distributing it, packaging it, putting out in the universe to attract black holes and meteorites and tidal waves and vampires. Thanks studios and production companies! The only thing more disturbing, or equally upsetting is the sure number of producers gathered around the trough taking turns after a luncheon at Apple Bees where they cooked up the whole moronic swill – the likes of Samuel J. Brown who brought us the likes of Journey 2 and Rush Hour 3, Jeff Davis who sat in on the Freeway Killer, Michael Disco who hatched the Hairspray redo with Travolta in drag and another disposable remake Journey to the Center of the Earth, and Jennifer Gibgot who gave us Step Up 2 and Step Up 3D, among a bunch of other girls and dudes with even more illustrative careers. I’ve already given them more screen time than I should but there is just so little to say about this film except AVOID IT AT ALL COSTS unless you’re a glutton for punishment – then make someone else pay for it!
I did my best to shore up the broken levee that is this film, to take it all in stride, be kind and remind myself not to torch it all until I got through, found the laughs, the funny. I suppose musicals require a certain level of preparedness going in, a certain expectation from the gate – the spontaneous song and dance reactions to woes and worry enough to steer all but the hardened cynic to soften a bit – and one must surely accept that beautiful people live beneath every tattered wardrobe change, perfect makeup highlighting perfect cheekbones and necessary hard bodies. But Rock of Ages is neither what is expected or even welcome departure, no matter how hard the cast tries to have fun with what amounts to stagey pantomimes and grand karaoke to overly excited and blatantly unrealistic enthusiasm. Perhaps we are expected to follow director Shankman back into his considerably more successful though no less cheese filled predecessor Hairspray and consider ourselves lucky to be bludgeoned, robbed of our good senses. Sadly not even that kind of solution to the inevitable conclusion of sappy feels necessary, extra or ordinary, just time poorly spent.