Cheese can be a funny thing. Some of the world’s most notorious cheeses, when you first encounter them, can smell utterly repulsive (or so I’m led to believe; my sense of smell sucks). But then, once you take a bite, you’ll find you’re enjoying it much more than your nose predicted.
Such is the case, improbably, with the cheesy “Rock of Ages,” a movie many preemptively dismissed as another Hollywood crime. Adapted from a musical built around hit songs — mostly from the ’80s — that some would like to pretend were never recorded, the idea of this movie could easily smell rancid. And yet, after tasting it, here I am recommending it as a funny, intentionally ridiculous two hours of decent entertainment.
Yeah, “Rock of Ages” is cheesy – because that’s how director Adam Shankman and the film’s three screenwriters want it. It won’t become a cheese classic – it has major weaknesses that keep it from being elevated to that status (and we’ll get to those). But for a movie where the filmmakers just want to laugh with you as you laugh at their product, you could do a lot worse – thanks in large part to its uber-famous roster of supporting actors.
Granted, during the film’s opening sequence, you might not be sure whether you’re going to laugh with Shankman and Co. or at them. The opening scene, with small-town Oklahoma girl Sherrie (Julianne Hough) taking a nighttime bus from her home to Hollywood to start a new life, is worth cringing at. Sherrie sings Night Ranger’s “Sister Christian” along with her fellow passengers, and it’s a bit uncomfortable to watch; frankly, you won’t be sure if you can handle more numbers like this.
Right after getting her suitcase stolen on Sunset Strip, Sherrie meets Drew (Diego Boneta), a young wannabe rock star who’s immediately smitten. He’s working at the nearby Bourbon Room and successfully lobbies the old-rocker bar owner (Alec Baldwin) to give Sherrie a job. The Bourbon Room, meanwhile, is preparing for the last-ever performance by hair-metal gods Arsenal, led by their way-out-there, alcoholic lead singer, Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise). An unimpressive mash-up of “Juke Box Hero” and “I Love Rock and Roll” soon ensues, featuring Boneta and Hough on the former and Baldwin and Russell Brand on the latter (Brand is his usual self as Baldwin’s Bourbon Room sidekick, Lonny).
From there, even while the story follows a familiar pattern for musicals, things soon pick up – because the acting pros get their chance to shine, and some honestly amusing one-liners and song-and-dance theatrics ensue. Almost without exception, the big names backing up Hough and Boneta hit their marks, bringing just the right touch of quasi-stage show irony to their performances and giving the film its best comedic crackle. Baldwin and Brand prove to be a watchable pair. Paul Giamatti is on his game as Paul Gill, Jaxx’s slimy agent.
And then, of course, there’s Cruise himself in the role of Jaxx. There was plenty of buzz about this, with a seeming assumption that any movie that allows Cruise to ham it up is doomed for failure. In fact — even given that he’s playing a clichéd symbol of ’80s rock excess — Cruise produces exactly what the role needs. The look in his eye – equal parts disdain and disorientation – is perfect, and his delivery matches it. He owns two of the film’s best music-video moments in succession – Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive,” with Hough, and Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is” with Malin Akerman, who plays a “Rolling Stone” reporter whom Jaxx romances in arguably the movie’s funniest musical sequence. For anybody who enjoys tongue-in-cheek celebrations of hair-metal and ’80s pop-rock, moments like these will be a good time.
But, as noted, this is far from anything great, and for some film goers, the missteps of “Rock of Ages” will overwhelm its high points. First and foremost, for me, are the two lead actors. Even when you’re obviously trying to make a cheesy musical, there’s still a limit; what I mean is, you can’t chew the scenery like it’s a mouthful of Gummi Bears. Boneta obviously doesn’t understand that, and his portrayal of Drew is reminiscent of a high school drama geek who’s convinced that animated facial expressions and over-emoting will put him on the big screen one day (oh, wait…). Hough isn’t much better, and her near-Chipmunk singing makes many of her renditions tough to take. It’s more fun to hear Baldwin or Brand sing (their “Can’t Fight This Feeling” is another novelty highlight) than it is to hear the country star crisply hitting every note.
The plot, naturally, progresses in a formulaic fashion: a “Three’s Company”-style misunderstanding breaks up the blossoming couple, and Sherrie and Drew both quit the Bourbon Room and find their lives going down undesirable paths. Arsenal’s big performance apparently gets the Bourbon out of financial trouble, but Giamatti shows up to screw Baldwin’s Dennis Dupree character out of his share of the gate. Some of the musical performances are just forgettable, such as Catherine Zeta-Jones’ stiff performance of “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” or her duel with Brand featuring “We’re Not Gonna Take It” and “We Built This City.” At times, you’ll wish things would move a little faster.
But ultimately, the sense of irony that “Rock of Ages” brings won me over, even if just barely. The movie doesn’t take itself seriously, and its most well-known cast members know exactly how to play it. For what it is – a musical that aspires only to make you laugh, and to laugh at itself – it’s worth a watch.