Starring Rainn Wilson, Christina Applegate, Josh Gad
Directed by Peter Cattaneo
Starring Steve Coogan, Catherine Keener, David Arquette
Directed by Andrew Fleming
In everyone’s life, there comes a time when — for the sake of his sanity and long-term happiness — he must come to terms with his place in the world.
The high-school football second-stringer must understand that college glory will never come; the college bench-warmer must make peace with never making the pros. There’s “keeping the dream alive” and then there’s misguided anger at that one coach who screwed you over, and the line between them is a thin one indeed.
Two new comedies — The Rocker and Hamlet 2 — both revolve around characters who have trouble surrendering youthful dreams of fame long since hacked to death yet, zombie-like, they refuse to die. But the films’ respective lead actors also offer a lesson in understanding where you belong in life’s grand pecking order.
In Hamlet 2, Steve Coogan carries a simple comedy by sheer force of his comedic charisma; in The Rocker, The Office’s Rainn Wilson shows us a second-banana trying awkwardly to break free from second-banana-hood.
Wilson plays Rob “Fish” Fishman, who was playing in the mid-’80s with hair-metal band Vesuvius, but was booted out just before they became mega-stars. Twenty years later, a still-bitter Fish bounces from menial job to menial job, and lives with his sister (Jane Lynch) and her family. So it’s only natural that when his nephew Matt (Josh Gad) and Matt’s high-school bandmates lose their drummer before the big prom gig, Fish would be asked to step in — and, when the band begins to gain momentum, attempt to live the rock-star party life that once was denied him.
The Rocker’s flashback opening includes a surreally goofy sequence involving the jilted Fish’s Terminator-style pursuit of his now-ex-bandmates in Vesuvius, effectively setting up his tenacious hold on what he believes was denied him. In fits and starts, the supporting cast provides plenty of big laughs, many of them from Gad — think of a slightly more morose Jonah Hill — and Jason Sudeikis as a motor-mouthed music industry executive.
But the fact that the supporting cast stands out in retrospect points to what doesn’t work about The Rocker: It’s got too flimsy a center. Wilson’s trying to channel the kind of ferocious sense of entitlement that fueled Jack Black’s performance in The School of Rock, but he hasn’t got that undefinable “it” that allows an actor to carry a comedy. Even the movie constructed around him seems to understand his limitations, as the focus regularly drifts to the puppy-dog would-be romance between two other teen band members (Emma Stone and Teddy Geiger). The bit players overshadow the “star” because as talented as Wilson is in a specific context, he is a bit player, playing dress-up as a leading man.
Compare and contrast Hamlet 2, which casts Coogan as Dana Marschz, the kind of never-was actor whose career highlights included a commercial for herpes medication. Now living in Tucson with his miserable wife (Catherine Keener), Marschz scrapes out a living as drama teacher at West Mesa High School, where budget cutbacks have forced many reluctant kids to sign up for his elective. But Marschz is determined to play out a real-life Dangerous Minds, and when his own program is threatened with the budgetary axe, he decides to go out with a bang and stage the fall production from his own original script — the improbable titular sequel to Shakespeare’s classic.
On paper, the script — by director Andrew Fleming and longtime South Park contributor Pam Brady — seems like an unruly mish-mash of genres. It’s a goof on the inspirational-teacher dramas name-checked by Marschz mixed with a “let’s put on a show” spoof like Waiting for Guffman, seasoned with the kind of show-biz satire that finds Elisabeth Shue showing up to play herself as a disillusioned ex-actor now working as a fertility clinic nurse. As the first hour teases toward outrageousness and sacrilege in the climactic performance, the show itself feels like an anti-climax, more often earning smiles than from-the-gut laughs.
It probably shouldn’t work at all, except that Coogan holds it together. His Marschz is an inspired gloss on the kind of earnest drama enthusiast who should have been weeded out of actual theater long ago — more Inside the Actors Studio’s James Lipton than James Dean. When the supporting characters score big — as Keener does, or Amy Poehler as a ball-busting ACLU attorney — they never threaten Coogan’s anchoring work. The best comedy in Hamlet 2 comes from watching a character who only barely grasps his limitations.
It works better than The Rocker, because it actually takes star power to play a guy who doesn’t have any.