"Rock of Ages" will make you want to raise your arms…and then immediately plunge your fingers into your eyeballs for salvation (you can go back for seconds to rescue your ears). "Hairspray" helmer Adam Shankman directs this movie that will finally kill the '80s nostalgia that continues to plague us if we're lucky and will further root karaoke performances and bar jukeboxes in that hairspray-choked decade if we're not. We've had a sub-par version of Journey's "Don't Stop Believin' " stuck in our head since we saw it, and we wouldn't wish this fate on anyone, except perhaps the development heads at Warner Bros. As much as everyone keeps trying to make Julianne Hough a star, Steve Perry she is not (though admittedly she is cuter).
Based on the hit Broadway musical, "Rock of Ages" follows small-town girl Sherrie Christian (Hough) as she leaves Tulsa, Oklahoma, for the bright lights of the Sunset Strip. You see, Sherrie wants to be a singer, and she hopes for her big break in the big city. Instead, she gets mugged the second she walks off the bus in Los Angeles (or whatever stand-in city is supposed to look like Los Angeles), and she meets fellow aspiring musician – and city boy – Drew (Diego Boneta) after he halfheartedly attempts to save her stuff. He's a barback at legendary rock venue The Bourbon Room, and he helps her get a job as a waitress there, too. Coincidentally, her favorite band EVER, Arsenal, is about to play the club for its final show with legendary lead singer – commence high-pitched screaming! – Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise). The sure-to-be epic show comes at the perfect time for club owner Dennis Dupree (Alec Baldwin), whose beloved business is on the verge of collapse. But will the whiskey soaked star be able to make the gig and sing "Pour Some Sugar on Me"? What will become of his interview with a Rolling Stone reporter (Malin Akerman)? And will the club be closed by the efforts of the uber-conservative Mayor Whitmore (a criminally wasted Bryan Cranston) and his equally straight-laced wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) in an effort to win re-election? And will Drew and Sherrie find fame and love in the City of Angels? So many questions (and so many unnecessary plotlines)!
To be fair, the point of a musical is rarely its story, and we'd be willing to forgive "Rock of Ages" if its worst sin were simply lifting its central plotline directly from "Don't Stop Believin' " and cramming in a dozen superfluous characters beyond the small-town girl and the city boy. In an act of charity, we might even overlook all the poorly written non-musical moments, which seem to go on forever in the poorly paced, terribly unfunny script. Characters are haphazardly introduced, with one waitress given a single, seemingly important speaking line where she warms Sherrie of the dangers of the spotlight and then disappears. A monkey named "Hey Man" has more to do than Paul Giamatti does as a smarmy manager. The internal logic of the film at once posits that real classic '80s bands exist within the universe of the film, but somehow Stacee Jaxx's Arsenal and other performers in the movie are responsible for hits from those same bands.
However, even focusing on the songs (of which there are approximately 729) reveals that they aren't of the caliber that we've come to hope for in solid Hollywood musicals. Most songs are either mashups or endless medleys: for example, Night Ranger's "Sister Christian" slams into David Lee Roth's "Just Like Paradise," which then hate fucks Poison's "Nothing But a Good Time." Pat Benatar's "Hit Me with Your Best Shot" gets the solo treatment from Zeta-Jones, but in the fear that the audience might get bored of watching the woman who killed it in "Chicago," shots of her suit-clad conservative first lady are intercut with another character getting spanked. Dancing is nearly non-existent in the film, which is particularly odd given Shankman's experience in choreography and the true arena of "Dancing with the Stars" alum Hough. In comparison, "Mamma Mia!" should be given a place in the National Film Registry.
The singing talent of most of the stars becomes an issue as well. Certainly not hired for her acting, Hough can belt out the sometimes challenging songs with gusto and hit all the notes, but her insipid voice wouldn't make it past the first Hollywood week of "American Idol." Starring in his first feature, Boneta sings better, but perhaps we we were just happy that he wasn't speaking. With puppy dog eyes perfect for Tiger Beat, he looks as attractive as he could with the '80s haircut, but that is as far as his charm goes. We're also happy that Baldwin seems content to stick to acting and running for New York mayor because his singing is enjoyably terrible. The best we can say about Russell Brand as an employee at The Bourbon Room is that we didn't want to punch him in the face, and Mary J. Blige's incredible voice seems to exist only to show how lacking everyone else is in singing talent.
However, Cruise goes for it and emerges a believable rock star in the vein of the decade's biggest legends in moments with music and without. We half expected him to slide into "The Serpentine" as he gives '80s-era Axl Rose a run for his money for on-stage talent and off-stage debauchery. He's able to make some the script's attempts at comedy almost funny, and we buy that women are embarrassing themselves in his sex-oozing presence.
With its two-plus-hour running time, "Rock of Ages" is a celebration of excess that only a passed-out, nearly deaf groupie would love. With Shankman in the director's chair, the tone is all over the place, with it never deciding whether it's a genuine effort or pure camp. Journey was right when they sang, "Oh the movie never ends. It goes on and on and on and on." Or maybe it just feels like it. [D-]