Friday, June 22, 2012
Ain't nothin' but nonsense: 'Rock of Ages' review
"Rock is dead." So says Paul Giamatti's oily, manipulative manager near the end of Adam Shankman's (Hairspray) adaptation of Rock of Ages, the Broadway musical about late-80s rock decadence. Like almost everything else in the film, it's hard to know how to take the line: are we supposed to realize he's right, that rock has drowned in its own excess and stumbled into the 90s as repackaged bubblegum pop? Are we supposed to deny him and take the stage anyway, embracing rock as something that lives on and on and on?
Then, is Rock of Ages a eulogy, a celebration, an insistence on rock's glory or a mockery of its empty decadence?
Clearly, it has to be a little of all the above, because Rock of Ages has no idea how it feels about the 1980s, about Los Angeles, or about the genre of music it repurposes into this jukebox musical. At times hyper-self aware, at times completely messy, and at times straight up making fun, Rock of Ages is caught between the rock and the hard place that most exemplifies kitsch: a mix of reverence, irreverence, satire, and mockery that's never close to being smart. It's not even close to being guilty pleasure trash cinema. Before it can round the corner between awful and awesomely-awful, it careens off the cliff.
Our superstar-in-the-making, Sherrie (Julianne Hough, who doesn't seem to understand the tone of the film at all), arrives in Los Angeles on a bus from Utah with big dreams of making it as a singer. When she gets off the bus, three L.A. icons are visible in a row -- the Hollywood sign in the background, Capitol Records in the medium ground, and the Roosevelt Hotel in the foreground. Even if we're to accept that this film is designed on sound stages that represent some alternate 1980s Los Angeles, it's still full of geographic nonsense (the Roosevelt is several blocks away from Capitol Records) -- like how the Sunset Strip is right around the corner in comfortable walking distance from Hollywood (it's not). I know this is a silly thing to even care about in a movie so divorced from reality or any shred of logic beyond its paper-thin, cardboard cut-out structure of recycled musicals and melodramas, but it only adds to the grating silliness of the whole affair.
From here, Sherrie lands a job at the iconic Bourbon Room on the Sunset Strip after meeting the eventual love of her life, Drew (who also has big singing aspirations!). Played by Diego Boneta, who seems awkwardly out of touch with everything happening around him, Drew is someone almost impossible to care for, because Boneta never really goes for broke. He's playing far too much of a straight man surrounded by much better actors doing much weirder things.
If nothing else, Rock of Ages is weird. But it's weird in a way that insists upon its weirdness. It wants you to revel so much in how cornball it is, nothing seems to really matter between the big ballads except giving us more shlock to look at. Between Tom Cruise singing into Malin Ackerman's ass, Catherine Zeta-Jones' bizarrely robotic rendition of "Hit Me With Your Best Shot," Bryan Cranston being spanked in his tighty-whities in a church, and a gay subplot between Alec Baldwin and Russell Brand's burn-out club owners that comes out of nowhere and goes nowhere, this movie is full of a creepy game of one-upping amongst the supporting cast.
And that would be fine, if the film had any kind of tonal or aesthetic consistency. It looks bland, has no real sense of space (theatrical or otherwise), and everything feels edited together by a team of interns who thought, "Maybe we should cut over here now."
The only person who seems to really get the joke is Tom Cruise, whose iconic rocker Stacie Jaxx (at least in the first act, before he just sits idly around the Chateau Marmont and develops a conscience) piles on the weird while remaining almost aggressively sincere. Cruise doesn't need to smirk knowingly to realize we'll get the camp and the kitsch. He creates some kind of caricature that's wholly embraceable because he's in command of whatever the hell he wants Stacie Jaxx to be at any given moment.
This notion of control is what's wrong with the rest of the movie. At times, its total lack of interest in its own cliche-riddled narrative mires it in, frankly, offensiveness. Its notion that the only two jobs a woman can find in Los Angeles are waitressing and stripping, its lone black character (Mary J. Blige, who seems to sadly realize she has no purpose being there) who walks around drinking and looking sad without ever talking about why (maybe because that's the best the film can do when exploring anything that's not white and bubbly), and the random introduction of homosexual characters who have nothing to say about being gay, only that they are gay (cartoonishly so) is enough to get anyone who actually stops to think about what's going on in this film up in arms.
Rock of Ages purports itself as harmless, as "nothing but a good time." It shows characters reminiscing on the anarchy of rock, of the liberation its lifestyle provides, but the film seems to be far away from celebrating these characters. It mocks them incessantly between songs, and the transformation of many of these pieces into big belty Broadway numbers totally deflates any kind of edge they might have offered (not to mention the constant cross-dissolves within music numbers and a hideous attention to spot-lighting that makes the whole thing feel like horrid MTV music videos). The aesthetic of Rock of Ages can't join in the lampooning and the whole kitschy vibe of the thing because it's shot so seriously, staged so ineptly, and choreographed in a way that simply looks lazy.
If the film had found a way to make its tone and its look jive with the overly stylized trashiness it so wanted to express, Rock of Ages could have worked as, well, a fun movie. But without knowing what to say or how to go about saying it, it just makes you want to roll your eyes.