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Nothin' but a Groupie Time

Rock of Ages (2012)

David James/Warner Brothers Pictures

The first 30 or so minutes of “Rock of Ages” are as much fun as Hollywood has allowed itself to have lately. Unfortunately, the movie then makes the classic mistake by most rock bands in the middle of a show: It switches the pace to a bunch of boring ballads.

But to set the scene: Country girl Sherrie (Julianne Hough) walks off a bus onto the Sunset Strip in 1987 and immediately meets Drew (Diego Boneta), a barback at the famous rock club The Bourbon Room. Drew convinces his bosses, Dennis (Alec Baldwin) and Lonny (Russell Brand), to hire Sherrie, which makes her first day the last show of famed band Arsenal before its lead singer Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise) goes solo. Dennis needs the Arsenal show to go well, as the club is under threat from protestors led by the mayor’s wife Patricia (Catherine Zeta-Jones). Stacee has his own problems: His manager (Paul Giamatti) is a tool; he has to be interviewed by Constance (Malin Åkerman) for Rolling Stone, and no one likes his pet baboon. And these plot turbulences are expressed through cock-rock songs from the ’80s: Guns N’ Roses! Poison! David Lee Roth! Pat Benatar! Foreigner! Extreme! Warrant! Bon Jovi! Def Leppard!

The boring ballads are almost always a mistake, as “Rock of Ages” proves. Instead of keeping all its cast in one setting and with one interconnected plotline, the movie splits into fragments after the final Arsenal show: Sherrie can only find work in a strip club; Drew finds himself selling out his musical dreams; Dennis has some, um, tax problems (rock and roll!); Stacee doesn’t like what the press has to say about him; Patricia still wants revenge, and everyone except the monkey wanders around singing boring ballads. Fortunately there is some positively heroic pole-dance choreography in the strip-club scenes — which are about as offensive as the average Michael Bay movie — to keep us awake. Mary J. Blige shows up in a “magic negro” part, offering life advice to Sherrie while wearing a series of fantastic jumpsuits. While we all wait for the inevitable finale, we have plenty of time to consider the point of this film.

In many ways, “Rock of Ages” is a meta-commentary on the career of Mr. Cruise. It’s based on a stage musical — dubbed “Mamma Mia” for boys — which has been doing the rounds since 2006. But director Adam Shankman and writers Justin Theroux, Allan Loeb and Chris D’Arienzo (who also wrote the stage musical) seemingly decided a tribute to the music, hairstyles and general attitude of the 1980s was not quite enough.

Our first sight of Stacee Jaxx is of him passed out backstage under a selection of naked ladies. As he stands up, we see all his tattoos before he passes out in a moat around the bed. He slouches around in a drugged-up haze, speaking in quasi-profound aphorisms before either demanding more alcohol or grabbing the top half of somebody's breasts. We learn later that he is actually self-aware and trapped in the prison of his public persona and the sexual aura that has created. Perhaps Constance will be able to help him escape? Or will he be caught forever in a lie?

But Mr. Shankman has managed to make a movie about rock and roll with very little sex in it. Ms. Hough has great legs, and Mr. Boneta is cute as a button; but they spend too much time apart for their original infatuation to have any lasting impact. Bryan Cranston, as Patricia’s husband, is obligingly tied up with rosary beads and paddled in a church very early on; but after this excellent start is barely used for the rest of the film. The sex scene between Mr. Cruise and Ms. Åkerman is only embarrassing. In fairness, they are singing “I Want to Know What Love Is” to each other’s genitalia while rolling around on a red pool table — which would have defeated Bogart-Bacall, Tracy-Hepburn and probably even Pitt-Jolie. Even Mr. Brand has dialed down his sexual energy.

If Mr. Shankman was going for a new “Wayne’s World” or even “Coyote Ugly,” then the PG-13-rated humor should have been ramped up at the expense of the sex. But the jokes are so thin and so far between, that they aren’t the answer either despite Messrs. Brand’s and Baldwin’s best efforts. This is a pity, for the opening section is a water cannon of big hair and stonewashed jeans exploding through any cynicism and reserve the audience might have.

The great final shame is that the finale is built around a ’80s song which now is inescapably associated with a musical TV show. It leaves the entire end section of the movie feeling like a rip-off of a tribute act, which makes what should be a lighters-in-the-air moment less than triumphant. Is this what Mr. Cruise’s career has come to? Doesn’t he, as well as us, deserve more than this?


Opens on June 13 in Britain and on June 15 in the United States.

Directed by Adam Shankman; written by Justin Theroux, Chris D’Arienzo and Allan Loeb, based on the stage musical by Mr. D’Arienzo; director of photography, Bojan Bazelli; edited by Emma E. Hickox; score by Adam Anders and Peer Astrom; choreography by Mia Michaels; production design by Jon Hutman; costumes by Rita Ryack; produced by Matthew Weaver, Scott Prisand, Carl Levin, Tobey Maguire, Garrett Grant and Jennifer Gibgot; released by Warner Brothers Pictures. Running time: 1 hour 57 minutes. This film is rated 12A by B.B.F.C. and PG-13 by M.P.A.A.

WITH: Julianne Hough (Sherrie Christian), Diego Boneta (Drew Boley), Paul Giamatti (Paul Gill), Russell Brand (Lonny), Mary J. Blige (Justice), Angelo Donato Valderrama (Chico), Malin Akerman (Constance Sack), Bryan Cranston (Mike Whitmore), Catherine Zeta-Jones (Patricia Whitmore), Alec Baldwin (Dennis Dupree) and Tom Cruise (Stacee Jaxx).


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