Adam Shankman is not much of a movie director. His last film of any note was Hairspray (2007) which used the gimmick of casting John Travolta as a Jewish mom in the role created by gay legend Harvey Fierstein on Broadway. Hairspray (2007) had its moments, Christopher Walken was terrific (as always) and the songs were curiously upbeat and toe tapping but for me there were one too many shots of the chubby (sorry) lead actress dancing with a silly smile on her face, looking like a too happy gremlin, as though she could believe her good luck to be the lead in a movie. The film had its moments, Amanda Bynes was wonderful as the nerdy white girl who falls for a cool black boy, and James Marsden was outstanding as, Corny Collins, the host of the goofy TV show the kids watched. I think where the film goes off the rails is when it becomes overly preachy about Civil Rights, because up to that moment we have been watching a musical comedy and suddenly we veer into another area. Don’t judge a book by its cover, right, be it a chubby girl or by the color of one’s skin.
Rock of Ages is not much of an improvement over Hairspray (2007) though it does have an astounding, over powering performance from Tom Cruise. Perhaps the great flaw of Shankman’s film, and his choice as a director is that he uses Cruise too much, gives him too much screen time which draws attention to the utter mediocrity of everyone else in the film. From the moment he first appears onscreen as arena rocker Stacee Jaxx, Cruise dominates this film, we cannot get enough of him, and yet he becomes oddly annoying by the end, a spoiled child given everything he demands. The rock star, is actually a spoiled brat who has been given his own way far too often, and though he wants to break free of the metal band he has fronted for years to go solo, he lacks the guts to do it, he is afraid.
How can a movie be this bad yet contain a performance so good, that jolts the audience out of their seats and forces them to watch? He is incredible in the film, really remarkable, and as I said the director perhaps made a mistake giving him so much screen time because he obliterates the rest of the cast and the film with his gigantic, towering performance. Not even the great Paul Giamatti, as his sleazy agent, a terrible person to take the heat of Jaxx for being one, can make a mark in the film because Cruise is simply so strong. If he were a anew actor, as when Sean Penn played Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemount High (1982) we would be celebrating what they call, “bite you on the nose talent!”
At fifty Cruise took a huge risk with this role, because he is at a position in his career that he can not afford to look stupid or be bad in a film. Audiences seem to have forgiven his goofy behaviour in the early part of the 2000’s when he was bouncing on a couch declaring his love for Katie Holmes, and are going to his movies again, but I think Cruise now knows he needs to give them a reason to go. There is a reason to see Rock of Ages, and it is Tom Cruise and Tom Cruise alone, who at fifty is in extraordinary physical condition, ripped, I believe they say, does his own singing, and he’s damned good, and struts around the stage and through the film like the cock of the walk, though inside he’s a frightened little boy being exposed by a tough Rolling Stone writer. The problem with all that information is that it is not even the main story of Rock of Ages, but rather a subplot for a character that is supposed to be a part a little larger than a cameo. Cruise is so good he elevates the role to a new level, he gives the film a furious boost of energy, and actually allows the picture to be so much better than it is. Cruise makes everyone else in the film look merely ordinary, not only ordinary as actors, but as human beings. We do not care about anything else in the film but Stacee Jaxx…nothing. We see more of Cruise than we ever have before, literally, including his butt cheeks, another risk for the actor given his age, and the fact he has not done anything this risque before. Eyes Wide Shut (1999)? Please, that was about as sexual as an issue of Hockey News left in the bathroom. Cruise seems to understand that rock stars sell sex, they must exude sex in their every move, their every glance, everything they do must suggest sex to the thousands of screaming girls in the audience. Certainly an understanding of his own celebrity helped the actor find the character, but again we have never seen Cruise like this.
Rock of Ages is as deep as the paper on which it is written and we have seen it hundreds of times before. It is what is being hailed as a jukebox musical, meaning it already has a built in soundtrack score of pop or rock tunes, leaving it to the writers to create a story that ties the songs together in some way. When done right as it was with Across the Universe (2007) the effect can be pleasing, moving and exciting cinema.
Star crossed lovers Sherrie (Julianne Hough) and Drew (Diego Boneta) meet while she is waiting tables after arriving from Tulsa with stars in her eyes and getting a taste of the real world really fast. We know they will end up together because the movie telegraphs the fact from the moment they first encounter one another. More interesting, but barely, is Dennis (Alec Baldwin) the owner of Bourbon, a nightclub that launched the career of Jaxx, now in trouble because of the righteous Mayors’ wife, Patricia Whitmore (Catherine Zeta-Jones) who has taken a dislike to the place and wants it shut down. She reminded me of John Lithgow in Footloose (1984) though he was more entertaining to watch. Dennis sets his sights on getting Jaxx back for a benefit performance that will solve his money issues, and allow Jaxx the ego boost of saving the day, but with Jaxx come a myriad of other issues that no one is really ready to deal with.
Remember Showgirls (1996)? Terrible film, with poor Elizabeth Berkley exploited for all she was worth throughout the film, to the extent that her career seemed dead. She ended up being not half bad as an actress, giving some good performances on TV’s CSI: Miami though all anyone remembers is Showgirls (1996). Like Showgirls (1996), Rock of Ages is pure cheesy fun, though rough going sometimes because the writing is terrible, the actors are weak, or is it that Cruise is simply too good for the rest of them? Does he truly lift this mess of a film to a new level, erasing the memory of any other performance with his stunning work?? No question, he is a revelation in the role, doing things we never thought he could do, and he’s been around a long time now, for him to still be surprising us is quite something. Watch him rock, listen to him sing and realize that in a different universe he might have decided to be a rock star on he levels of Jon Bon Jovi, John Cougar Mellancamp, Bryan Adams, Steve Tyler, Steve Perry, even jim Morrison, and he could have accomplished it. With his flowing locks, his ripped body, the ridiculous eighty rocker clothes he is wearing and that rock star swagger and attitude, Cruise goes beyond Rock of Ages and gives a performance for the ages. He jumps right into the field for Best Supporting Actor.
The film? Headed for a Raspberry nomination or six.
Tags: Catherine Zeta-Jones, Christopher Walken, Hairspray, John Travolta, Rock of Ages, tom cruise