ROCK OF AGES (2012, Adam Shankman): 7/10
This whole Justin Theroux thing is interesting. He seemingly comes out of nowhere to be one of the few somewhat bright spots in MULHOLLAND DR., and gives another fairly dramatic performance in SIX FEET UNDER as a Rachel Griffiths love interest, then does this sharp turn to comedy — he’s hilarious in State-family films like THE BAXTER, THE TEN, and WANDERLUST, to the point where I think he missed his calling as a leading man screen comedian. And just when you thought he didn’t have any more range, he pops up as a screenwriter of TROPIC THUNDER and the curiously underrated IRON MAN 2, which, for all its faults, has so many clever zingers in it that you soon wonder if anyone *but* Justin Theroux could have written it.
Those same thoughts may pass through your mind during the gleefully satirical, indulgently campy, painfully formulaic, but often hysterically funny ROCK OF AGES, the latest Theroux script to no doubt be misunderstood and underrated by people mistakingly thinking it’s taking itself seriously. It isn’t. With comic tangents almost as transcendently absurd as Theroux’s luddite monologues in WANDERLUST, this ’80s hair metal musical is not the earnest, GREASE-like fable it paints itself as in the trailer. It’s dripping with irony, and almost contemptuous of its vapid stars — namely Julianne Hough (a professional dancer from Dancing With the Stars who does no dancing in this film, only acting and singing, both of which she’s terrible at) and Diego Boneta (a blank pile of cotton balls that makes you wish a 10-years-younger Justin Timberlake had been available to do the role).
Luckily, director Adam Shankman stuffs the supporting cast with highly qualified actors who absolutely kill it. There’s Paul Giamatti — who describes himself at one point as an Exxon oil slick, and plays the part to a tee — and Catherine Zeta-Jones (the star of the best-choreographed number in the whole film, as she leads a conservative church group in a boisterous rendition of Pat Benetar’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot”), and her on-screen husband Bryan Cranston, miles away from Walter White and just as focused. Then there’s the parade of comedians up to the task of delivering Theroux’s uproarious dialogue: his WANDERLUST co-star Malin Akerman as a horny Rolling Stone journalist, Alec Baldwin and Russell Brand as nightclub workers who couldn’t be more delightful… not to mention Will Forte and T.J. Miller (who nearly steals the show in one quick phone conversation scene).
But last, and never least, is the reason to see ROCK OF AGES: Tom Cruise. I’m not sure if Cruise will ever be appropriately lauded for the actor he is. He’s too big a movie star, too extreme a celebrity (with extremely batshit Scientology views), and seemingly too full of himself. But the guy can fucking act. He throws himself into his roles 100% — energetic, fierce, charismatically believable. This is his cockiest and most charged piece of narcissism since PT Anderson’s MAGNOLIA, and he relishes every moment he gets on screen: from his introduction (Giamatti’s journey to Cruise’s dressing room is like Martin Sheen going to meet Marlon Brando in APOCALYPSE NOW) to his hey-love-interest-Akerman-hang-on-a-sec-while-I-make-out-with-this-groupie expression of sheer comedic charm. I’ve read somewhere that people think Tom Cruise always plays Tom Cruise on film, but I have no idea what those people are watching. Comparing his drunk rock star God complex in this film with his steely hitman in COLLATERAL, his repressed, responsible doctor in EYES WIDE SHUT, his afraid, over-his-head divorced father in WAR OF THE WORLDS, and his tortured, bipolar lovestruck maniac in VANILLA SKY reveals the kind of range Cruise can really offer. Adam Shankman may not be able to rank alongside Stanley Kubrick, Brian DePalma, Martin Scorsese, John Woo, Ridley (and Tony) Scott, Rob Reiner, Michael Mann, Neil Jordan, Cameron Crowe, Steven Spielberg, and Oliver Stone (but I mean seriously, can you think of a single actor in the history of American cinema who has worked with that diverse and high a level of directorial talent — ever?), but he knows how to shoot a musical number and how to get the best out of a movie star that’s about as good an actor as you’ll find in the category.
I could have done without the two-too-many scenes of Julianne Hough roughing it as a stripper with the holy-shit-does-she-suck-at-acting Mary J. Blige, and without the wide-eyed window-pane of insipidness that is Diego Boneta, but I can overlook the two black holes of interest at the center of this film because I was so entertained by Theroux’s magnificently cheeky writing and the sheer enthusiasm this considerable ensemble was able to bring. And whether I think of Brand describing the Bourbon Room crowd as “a hot, fecund soup of estrogen and testosterone,” or of Zeta-Jones reminiscing about becoming “a woman — sure, a woman tied up and dripping with whipped cream and Wild Turkey, but a woman nonetheless,” I know that ROCK OF AGES is very aware of its place in the genre of camp musicals, and it’s way smarter — and funnier — than almost anyone will give it credit for. Then again, after seeing the reviews of IRON MAN 2 and WANDERLUST, I shouldn’t be surprised.