Sunday, July 01, 2012

Film Review: Rock Of Ages (2012)

"I sense that Xenu is near..."
Adapted from the hit show, Adam Shankman's Rock Of Ages sets itself out as a rowdy, debauched entry into that venerable cinematic tradition, the jukebox musical. Based largely at the the Bourbon Room, a dingy rock club which, despite apparently being the home of rock and roll within the universe of the film, is always on the verge of financial collapse. Over the course of a few days in 1987, the film follows the stories of people whose lives revolve in some way around the club; the girl fresh off the bus from Oklahoma (Julianne Hough) who dreams of making it as a singer; the bartender/aspiring rock star (Diego Boneta) who falls in love with her; the owner (Alec Baldwin) and his second-in-command (Russell Brand) who are trying to keep the club alive; and the puritanical busybody (Catherine Zeta-Jones) who wants to shut it down.

From pretty much the opening seconds of the film, it's clear that Rock Of Ages is a film concerned with the images, sounds and excesses of the '80s, particularly those of hair metal, and not with story or character. Every person in the film is a very broad archetype, distinguished solely by whatever the performers bring to the role, such as the not-so-subtle hint of sex that Zeta-Jones gives her character, suggesting that there is something driving her crusade against the Bourbon Room other than a mere love of decency, or whether or not they've been given some outrageous hairstyle, such as the greasy locks Baldwin sports throughout. It's a superficial film about a very superficial world.

There's nothing inherently wrong with that approach to the material since the heightened style of musicals lends itself nicely to broadness, and the kind of songs showcased in Rock Of Ages are perfectly suited to ostentatious theatricality. Where Rock of Ages stumbles, and stumbles hard, is in the basic nuts and bolts of its storytelling, creating an experience which is lumpy and relentless, and which branches off into a myriad inconsequential subplots that serve no purpose other than to extend the film's bloated running time. Whilst it has some spark and energy in individual scenes, the overall construction of the film is awkward, and makes for an exhausting experience.

There's a self-conscious ridiculousness to the film that is oddly charming, but it almost feels as if the film does not go far enough, and that a director with a stronger satirical edge might have been better suited to the material. For example, after Hough and Boneta meet and fall for each other, we are treated to the early stages of their blossoming love; they go to the beach, they go to a fun fair, they attend a friend's birthday party, they sleep together for the first time, etc. They pack a lot in, basically. Yet, based on the chronology established in the film, all of that romance seems to take place within the twelve hours or so between them meeting each other and going to work the next day, the day of Stacee's concert. This feels like the set-up for a funny joke about the way in which musicals heighten all emotions, or just the silliness of romance montages in general, but it lacks a punchline. There's an earnest, straightforward approach to the material stopping it from being the outrageous good time that it should be.

The film's broader issues are encapsulated by those surrounding Stacee Jaxx, the almost mythic rock star played in the film by Tom Cruise. Rock of Ages is a pretty standard "let's put on a show!"-style musical in which a big event has to go off without a hitch to raise enough money to keep the church/youth club/orphanage open, so it makes complete sense that the film would hinge upon Stacee performing at the Bourbon Room. Yet instead of introducing him nearer the end of the film so that the show in question could be a big climax, the show happens half an hour or so in, saving the club from foreclosure briefly, before endangering it again by having Stacee's greasy manager (Paul Giamatti) swindle the club out of the takings, requiring that Stacee perform another show at the end of the film to the exact same purpose as the first.

Putting the club in peril right after saving it requires some incredibly clumsy storytelling, but more importantly, it forces the audience to sit through the exact same plot points two times over, to no discernible end. For much of its running time, Rock Of Ages moves in ever decreasing circles, repeating the same gags and tricks over and over, each time edging incrementally closer to an obvious conclusion. Again, this is particularly true of Stacee: Cruise has a lot of fun playing against his usual squeaky clean image, but each time that he says something weird or each time his pet monkey Heyman does something inappropriate, it diminishes the effect that the character should have as an almost ethereal, shamanic figure who wanders into the story to cause chaos or to save everyone. This goes double for a sub-plot in which a journalist for Rolling Stone (played by the very funny Malin Akerman, who is given absolutely nothing funny to do) breaks Stacee's heart, which doesn't really add anything to the film other than minutes of screen time, and which distracts from the main thrust of the story and Stacee's supposed mystique.

The musical numbers themselves are well-staged and performed with gusto by the cast, even though the quality of the performers vary wildly from the clearly accomplished singers (Hough, Boneta and Zeta-Jones) and those who are trying their best, but come across as overly enthusiastic members of a regional theatre company. It's nice that Alec Baldwin and Russell Brand had fun singing a ballad to each other, but that doesn't mean that fun will be reciprocated by those watching.

The connective material between all the numbers, of which there are about five or six too many, is so slim and half-hearted that it makes Rock of Ages the musical equivalent of a Michael Bay film; a bunch of set-pieces strung together with awkward, uneven storytelling that make the breaks between the songs pretty interminable to sit through. It will probably play better on DVD, when viewers will be able to skip past all of the quote unquote story and just watch the performances, or if you decide to skip the film entirely and just listen to the soundtrack album whilst looking at still images of the cast.

Grade: C-