In retrospect, 1987, the year in which this adaptation of Chris D'Arienzo's hit Broadway show is set, might have been the moment that pop culture shit the bed. A time of bad hair and tacky clothing, when synthetic music, high-concept movies, and the "greed is good" ethos prevailed, it marked a victory of corporate consumerism over art and invention.
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At times Rock of Ages seems like it might be satirizing that bankrupt state of affairs, attempting a kind of self-sabotaging, post-modernist meta-musical; after all, the director, Adam Shankman, had turned Hairspray into a semblance of its original subversiveness, and co-screenwriter Justin Theroux had once played a hip filmmaker in David Lynch's Mulholland Drive. But around the third time "Don't Stop Believing" surges up on the soundtrack, that no longer seems believable. Despite some inspired crude humor, Rock of Ages is just another meretricious and cynical example of what it occasionally makes fun of.
Like Julie Taymor's far more challenging and inventive Across the Universe (2007). Rock posits an alternate world, one in which a Top 40 hit isn't by a band like Journey but is supposedly a work-in-progress by Drew Boley (Diego Boneta), barboy at the notorious "Bourbon Room" on Sunset Strip. Drew hopes someday to sing that song on the Bourbon's stage, his name given top billing on the club's marquee. Sherrie Christian (Julianne Hough), a wide-eyed girl just in from Oklahoma, has similar dreams. As in the musicals of old, people with dreams burst into song and engage in elaborate production numbers without anyone finding it strange. And so the fellow passengers in Sherrie's Greyhound bus can join her in a rendition of Night Rider's "Sister Christian" —- though this scene might elicit nervous laughter from those watching the movie who still aren't sure whether it's all a joke.
Predictably, Drew and Sherrie hit it off, and their love blossoms in bliss montages, unfolding with all the verve of colorful laundry spinning in a dryer and backed by awful songs by Foreigner and Gary Cherone. But then debauched superstar Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise) and his reptilian manager Paul Gill (Paul Giamatti) show up, tempting the smitten pair with fame and misfortune. Drew betrays his love, and then his rock-and-roll purity, by joining a boy band; and Sherrie sheds her Christian virtue by dancing in a club reminiscent of Flashdance.
For the most part the film plays these clichés straight. But some moments undermine the earnestness. Like Jaxx crooning "I Want to Know What Love Is" to a woman's butt, or grizzled Bourbon Room owner Dennis Dupree (Alec Baldwin) and his noisome partner Lonny (Russell Brand) singing "Can't Fight This Feeling" as a tender love duet to each other. Catherine Zeta-Jones as a pious anti-rock crusader with a not-so-secret past with Jaxx also adds a John Waters touch of ribald hypocrisy.
After a while, though, the spectacle of a stoned and slack-jawed Cruise slurring non-sequiturs while women inexplicably swoon over him gets a little tired, and Baldwin and Brand's hirsute, aging-hippie act fails to amuse. Not even Jaxx's pet baboon Hey Man can distract from the sad fact that this Rock has no soul.