In 2009 I saw the opening night performance of Rock of Ages, a jukebox musical that uses hair metal songs from the 1980s as its score, in a Broadway theater populated by, at least partially, members of the bands whose music was featured in the show. There were guys from Styx and Journey and various other old groups in the audience, and there were their wives/girlfriends/dates/escorts/former groupies. And boy did those chicks just love the show. One woman in particular kept shrieking at every joke and whooping at the opening chords of every song. At one point she basically hurled herself onto the stage and likely would have stayed there, half on, half off, had one of her companions not gently pulled her back into her seat. She was having a blast, and while that kind of audience behavior would normally be horrifying, at Rock of Ages, a deeply silly soft-pedal paean to partying, it was not only tolerable, it was welcome. She added to the mood. This was a fun show, and a little messiness, or a lot as the case may be, was just fine. It's part of the deal, it's part of the joke.
What a pity, then, that the new movie adaptation of Rock of Ages, opening today, has been completely sucked dry, all the looseness and drunken abandon that the stage show had in big, puffy abundance entirely gone. Director Adam Shankman, who made the serviceable but cold and impersonal Hairspray, has polished everything to a hard shine and done away with virtually all of the stage production's meta winks and asides. The main gag of Rock of Ages on stage was that the production knew it was silly, knew that the songs being performed — "Don't Stop Believin'," "Sister Christian," "Pour Some Sugar On Me" — are mainly loved with a kind of forgiving irony. The show had a narrator who regularly commented on and mocked the action of the story, like teasing the central romance — wide-eyed girl off the bus from Oklahoma meets wide-eyed boy with rockstar dreams — for its many hoary cliches. But Shankman hasn't built this self-awareness into his film at all, so what we get on screen is a lurchingly straightforward movie, one that's both tediously generic and tonally off-kilter. He's made a very bad movie.
The film takes place in a scuzzy rock club on the Sunset Strip in 1987. Well, the club is supposed to be scuzzy, but it's really not. Everyone's pretty nice to each other there and the place looks clean enough and it's got Alec Baldwin and Russell Brand as its cute dad-and-mom heads of household. Baldwin plays the club owner, an old dog rocker settling into cranky weariness, and Brand plays his number two. On stage, Brand's character served as the play's narrator, a plot device that gave the show its winning meta sensibility. There is no narrator in the film, however, so it's up to us to wonder whether anyone's being serious at any given time. I think mostly they are being serious, which is lazy and depressing. Normally it's the opposite, with sarcasm and irony coming across as dismissive and uninspired (see: Dark Shadows, well no, don't see it), but that particular tone is the central thesis of Rock of Ages. Without it, it's just a flimsy narrative buttressed only slightly by dusty old songs.
The club's odd job lackey is a kid named Drew, who is played by the curly haired, angel-faced Diego Boneta. It's a prurient casting choice on Shankman's part, and one that does the film no favors. Boneta is beautiful and all, I mean just look at her, but this kid Drew isn't supposed to be some cherub from twink heaven, he's supposed to be a greasy wannabe, a little squirt who thinks big. American Idol finalist Constantine Maroulis, no monster but certainly not Czech sex basement material, played the role on Broadway and his stringy, goofy demeanor fit the story perfectly. There's no real depth of character in Rock of Ages, but there is a certain rhythm and aesthetic to synch up with, and Maroulis did just that. Boneta does not. It doesn't help that he's paired up with Julianne Hough, the Manufactured American who pulled off some nice moves in last year's Footloose remake but who here, playing country mouse Sherrie, showcases a grating, nasal singing voice and cheap plastic acting skills. It's not a star turn.
But yes, she sings. Because this is a musical! In keeping with the rest of the film's clean, shellacked glaze, most of the voices here are pitch corrected into robotics. It's '80s hair metal by way of Glee, with all the perky, Auto-Tuned runs and harmonies of any McKinley High concert. Boneta's got a nice enough voice, though it's nothing compared to Maroulis' wail, and its gentle pop-ness doesn't quite suit the scene. Other people sing in the film, among them Baldwin (weakly), Brand (surprisingly appealingly), and Catherine Zeta-Jones, who plays a crusading moral values type and who sings with her usual husk and slightly overconfident verve. (Her turgid "Send in the Clowns" from her recent-ish Broadway turn in A Little Night Music kept coming sadly to mind — this is supposed to be a fun movie, so why does Desiree keep complaining??) But the true vocalist, the one for whom the singing is most important, is one Tom Cruise, here playing a souring rock legend named Stacee Jaxx and laying on a coat of something so thick I wonder if he'll ever be able to fully chip it off.
Cruise's singing is just fine, it's higher and reedier than I expected but it is also competent and believable. But the rest of his performance, his physicality and line delivery, is so strange and mannered that it teeters on the brink of histrionic arrogance. He consumes every scene he's in, pulls focus like the hammiest of the hams, and doesn't seem to care that he's clearly in an entirely different movie than everyone else. He moves like a snake, all curving and twisting, and he speaks. about. one. word. a. minute. Jaxx is going through some kind of vague existential crisis which Cruise turns into a primal soul scream, his searching eyes blazing with coiled fury and confusion, the rest of his face hard and unyielding. He's doing a lot of acting in this film, which is commendable, but unfortunately it's the wrong acting. It's over serious and seems like too much work. He goes down and he goes down hard in this film, and he takes the whole table setting with him.
Cruise brings a level of sexual menace to the film that Shankman oddly doesn't try to tamp or wash away. He just lets it happen, and there are moments in Rock of Ages that verge on unseemly. By the time Tom Cruise pees on Paul Giamatti (playing his sleazy manager) and poor old Giamatti just stands there and takes it, I'd given up on trying to determine if this movie had any taste at all. The stage show was plenty crass (in a breezy Broadway way, of course), but it at least had all the other stuff, y'know all the funny things and exciting musical numbers and whatnot, to cushion the smut. The film version, though, is airless and dull, casting the more lewd things into starker relief. There are moments in Rock of Ages that are plainly off-putting, while the rest of the film is a tiresome, joyless slog through a catalog of songs that are presented with all the zip and artistry of a ringtone.
Ideally, one should leave Rock of Ages, if not hurling oneself on stage and shrieking at old American Idol contestants, at least with a smile and a picked-up step. But when my companion and I left the film this week, the pouring rain that greeted us outside the theater seemed only in keeping with the tone of the past two hours. The takeaway emotion from Rock of Ages is ultimately depression; it's sad and exhausting to see people try this hard to have so little fun.
Meanwhile over in Sandlerland, I don't know what the hell is going on but, welp, I kinda like it. Adam Sandler's anarchic, grotesquely amusing new film That's My Boy is hinged on a pretty risky premise: In the early '80s, a 13-year-old boy named Donny is seduced by a sexy teacher (played by a rosy Eva Amurri Martino, and later by her mother Susan Sarandon) and the two begin a sexual affair that eventually gets exposed, quite graphically, at an assembly in front of the whole school. The teacher, who is pregnant, is sent to jail, but Donny becomes a folk hero. He's the kid that lived out every dude's fantasy of banging the hot teacher. Which brings us, awkwardly, to a whole discussion of sexual abuse and statutory rape laws and gender differences that I, and the film, would rather not have right now. So, That's My Boy just does a quick tiptoe past it and dives into the ridiculous, rancid meat of the film. The premise shouldn't work — it's exploitative and likely offensive — but we let it go, because it's easier that way and we're definitely seeing this movie for something easy.
Flash forward 30 years and Donny's celebrity has faded. His money's gone and he's facing prison time for not paying his taxes. So he gets the idea to make some quick cash by filming a reality show about reuniting with his former teacher and their son (Andy Samberg), who has changed his name from Han Solo, ha ha, to Todd and is a boring, buttoned-up, nervous finance guy who's about to get married. Donny finds out where Han Solo/Todd and his fiancée (Leighton Meester) are getting married, somewhere idyllic on Cape Cod, and promptly crashes the weekend, messily insisting himself back into Todd's life in the hopes of getting him to do the show. No one knows that this is Todd's father, he's introduced as a best friend, but whoever he is, the gang (in-laws, boss, funky old lady) takes an immediate shine to the slovenly weirdo. Todd is horrified by Donny's antics, but everyone else think he's a hoot. That's the foundation for most of the jokes in this film, a kind of nebbish's nightmare of social decorum earning scorn while an obvious boor gets away with it all and then some. Samberg plays the straight man well, he's a more elastic Charles Grodin, perhaps.
Sandler, meanwhile, adopts a harsh, almost growly Bahhstin accent and dons a scruffy wig (at least I hope that's a wig) and goes for disgusting broke. But while Donny says and does awful things — an extended semen joke is especially ugly — he's still so darn lovable. That's Sandler's deceptively wise trick; he creates outward monsters, people like Donny and Jill and Billy Madison, who are all actually the most kind and decent people in their respective films. Donny is friends with everyone, he's got an open mind, he'd never judge. Sandler is creating an army of unlikely mensches, who are supported by Sandlerian groups of spazzes, freaks, and weirdos. Like the Farrelly Brothers' films, most Sandler movies feature an eclectic cast of odd-looking people, That's My Boy being no exception. But the trick is, the movie is nice to these people, they're in on the joke, and they're all mostly heroes in the end. Underneath all of Sandler's crass humor is a pretty strong-running current of kindness and goofy optimism. It's surprising, and affecting.
But back to the gross stuff. There are too many wild or foul things said and done in this movie to list so I'll just offer up a few highlights: Todd Bridges skating on an ice rink while smoking a bong, a dress mannequin used for sexual purposes, and a reasonably shocking incest plotline. Oh yes, this movie goes there. But that's OK, strangely. I don't mind. I will admit it: I laughed during much of That's My Boy and felt a rush of warmth and victory when the story wrapped up in its nice, tidy way. Sandler and Samberg are well paired, and there is strong supporting work from Milo Ventimiglia (lookin' goooood in a military uniform), James Caan (as a boxing priest), and Vanilla Ice, of all people. The movie is a mess, a loud and icky splatter of cinema, but that's the intent. And I really didn't mind being rolled around in it for a while. Sandler isn't making high art, but he's somewhat secretly making some of the friendliest and most oddly inviting studio movies out there. It turns out, he's our guy.