REVIEW: Tame Rock of Ages Gets a Slurpy Tongue Bath from Tom Cruise
Many of us who were alive in the 1980s claimed not to listen to heavy metal or its almost indistinguishable twin, hard rock. But we did listen, or at least we heard it — it was unavoidable, an omnipresent aural beast slithering out of car radios, grungy bars and retail-establishment stereo systems. Even if you were more attuned to punk or jazz or just about anything else, it was part of the background noise of your life whether you liked it or not. If nothing else, Rock of Ages — adapted from the Broadway show of the same name, in which ’80s metal hits from the likes of Def Leppard, Foreigner and Night Ranger were woven into a rudimentary boy-meets-girl love story — reminds us just how good many of those songs we were pretending not to listen to really were. The picture has a good-natured, if self-conscious, spring to its step, at least until you-know-who shows up in a bejeweled devil’s head codpiece. The movie almost doesn’t survive his slurpy tongue bath.
Seeing Tom Cruise swathed in leather pants and fake tattoos, as Axl Rose-style metal god Stacee Jaxx, is supposedly Rock of Ages’ big draw. But the movie is much more fun when he’s not around, partly because the story has been retooled from the stage show to give his character a dose of much-needed redemption. Why can’t he just be bad? The appeal of rock’n’roll is that it’s supposed to be disreputable. The rejiggered plot of Rock of Ages also involves a family-values crusader, played by Catherine Zeta-Jones, who vows to make the streets of Los Angeles “safe for teenagers” by killing the most popular rock club. That’s a tangled irony the writers of the exceedingly tame Rock of Ages — Justin Theroux, Chris D’Arienzo and Allan Loeb, riffing on the original book by D’Arienzo — can’t worm their way out of.
But it’s probably futile to hold Rock of Ages up to such close scrutiny. The point, mainly, is to watch two young people, good-girl Oklahoma metalhead Sherrie Christian (Julianne Hough, of Dancing with the Stars) and mild-mannered aspiring rock musician Drew Boley (Diego Boneta) meet, fall in love, break up over a misunderstanding, and then get together again. As the movie opens, Sherrie arrives in Los Angeles with a suitcase full of dreams (or record albums, which pretty much amount to the same thing) that’s promptly stolen. Drew, a barback at a rock’n’roll watering hole known as the Bourbon Room, tries to get it back for her but fails. Still, the sparks fly immediately, and Drew helps Sherrie get a job at his club, which is managed by an aged rocker whose leather vest barely reaches around his tubby belly. His name is Dennis Dupree, and he’s played with a great deal of shrewd glee by Alec Baldwin.
Dennis runs the Bourbon Room at a deficit; his right-hand man is the scrawny, reasonably helpful Lonny (Russell Brand, who appears to be running out of tricks outside of just being Russell Brand-y). Dennis thinks he may be able to turn his club’s fortunes around by booking Stacee Jaxx, who got his start thanks to Dennis. Unfortunately, Jaxx’s manager — Paul Giamatti in a baldy-man ponytail and a succession of comically broad-shouldered suits and patterned sweaters — cheats Dennis out of any profit he might have made. Meanwhile, Patricia Whitmore (Zeta-Jones), the Tipper Gore-ish wife of the city’s mayor elect, tries to put Dennis out of business in other ways. Through it all, or through most of it, Drew and Sherrie make moo-moo eyes at one another and duet their way through the catalogs of Foreigner, Extreme and Warrant, dusting off songs like “More Than Words,” “Heaven Isn’t Too Far Away” and “I’ve Been Waiting for a Girl Like You.”
Did I mention that Malin Akerman shows up as a poodle-haired, half-brainy half-horny Rolling Stone journalist? Actually, there’s a lot going on in Rock of Ages, probably too much. The simplicity of the stage show (which originated way off-off-Broadway, in a Hollywood club, in 2005) put the spotlight on the music, for better and sometimes for worse. The movie, made by longtime choreographer-turned-director Adam Shankman (also the man behind the 2007 Hairspray) is often busier than it needs to be. All that extra business detracts from the modest appeal of the leads: Boneta has some of the scrappy charm of the very young Matt Dillon, and Hough is sunny in a wind-up doll sort of way. Unfortunately, their musical numbers are shot and cut in such a way that it’s hard to actually watch their bodies move — why cast a dancer like Hough if we don't really get to see her move?
Then there’s the Tom Cruise problem. He’s fun to watch in his first few scenes, hamming it up as a spoiled rock’n’roll satyr. But the role quickly becomes a retread of the one he played in Magnolia, only in a different costume. Cruise can’t hide his cockiness — it’s in his blood. But even when he tries to kick back and poke fun at himself, he takes the job so seriously that it becomes a sort of grind. There’s nothing sexy about him, unless you find studied posturing erotic.
That said, he does strut quite ably through a version of “Pour Some Sugar on Me” — it’s his best moment, and one of the liveliest bits in the movie. Zeta-Jones might have been used to better effect, considering how dazzling she is in her one big number, a rendition of “Hit Me with Your Best Shot” which she performs in the unsexiest of costumes, a boxy pink suit. Zeta-Jones gets her revenge later, though, when she shows up in one of the sleekest, foxiest getups I’ve seen all year, at long last giving the movie some bite. You’ll get just a glimpse or two, so enjoy it while it lasts. The rest of Rock of Ages is a sprawl whose cheerfulness feels more than a bit calculated. It's a fake tattoo with the volume turned way, way up.