Before hitting the five-minute mark, Adam Shankman’s anticipated adaptation of the hit Broadway musical Rock of Ages has already clued the viewer in on what to expect during the two-hour runtime. The film introduces us to the two young leads, small-town girl Sherrie (Julianne Hough) and city boy Drew (Diego Bonetta), by having a bus load of travelers belt out Night Ranger’s “Sister Christian” while a bar full of raucous youths perform a thundering rendition of Twisted Sister’s “I Wanna Rock.” Shankman tells the audience in the most clumsily direct way possible: “We hope you love the ’80s, because you are about to be drenched in it.”
Hitting the screen by way of a team of scriptwriters that includes the original stage production’s Chris D’Arienzo, Rock of Ages presents a fairy-tale version of Los Angeles’ heavy metal scene circa 1987. Sherrie is an Oklahoma girl ready to strike out on her own as a singer, while Drew also dreams of the stage while keeping the bar stocked at the Bourbon Room, a legendary venue on the Sunset Strip. After she’s robbed shortly upon arriving in L.A., Drew introduces Sherrie to club owner Dennis Dupree (Alec Baldwin), who hires her on as a waitress.
Dennis has problems of his own, however. The frontrunner for mayor of Los Angeles, Mike Whitmore (Bryan Cranston), is pledging to clean up the city, and closing down the Bourbon Room is the first thing on his list. Dennis turns to his old friend, the legendary rock star Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise), for help, asking him to perform at the club so Dennis can use the receipts to pay back taxes and stay afloat.
The film is built upon a basic paint-by-numbers formula: boy meets girl, girl helps boy achieve his dream, boy breaks up with girl due to misunderstanding, girl becomes stripper, and boy joins the New Kids on the Block. Yes, in this movie, the worst thing that can happen to you once you have ended a relationship is for you to prostitute yourself in any number of ways. Apparently, Sherrie can only find work at a strip club run by the only African American to be found in Rock of Ages, Justice Charlier (Mary J. Blige), while Drew is forced to join a boy band by his oily manager Paul (Paul Giamatti). While both are only able to bring in money once they make these sacrifices, the movie makes it seem as if they are the first two people in the world whose dreams didn’t go quite as well as they had planned. It would be easy to say that the film’s many plot contrivances can be found in any number of musicals, but the fact is the filmmakers and actors were given a lazy script to work with.
The two young leads are basically ciphers, taking up valuable running time that could have been better used by giving the supporting cast larger roles. Tom Cruise is fascinating in a car wreck kind of way, bringing to the screen an amalgamation of his public persona with a touch of his Academy Award-nominated turn in Magnolia thrown in for flavor. Baldwin and Cranston are both game, although it seems like they may have been put to better use by switching roles.
Catherine Zeta-Jones is the real treasure here as Mrs. Whitmore, seemingly on a crusade to end heavy metal (and destroy Jaxx in particular). Her portrayal of a former wild-child with a chip on her shoulder is masterful, and the film only seems to come alive when she is onscreen. It would be ridiculous not to mention how well she performs her musical numbers too, which also sets her apart from the rest of the cast; it is apparent that the past few years Zeta-Jones has spent on Broadway have strengthened her abilities as a performer.
Rock of Ages is exactly what you think it is. There are no surprises to be found or enjoyed here. If you are looking for a guilty pleasure on date night, there is a chance you will find it among Cruise’s fingernail polish and all of the big hair. Otherwise, you’ve heard this song before.