It goes without saying that Rock of Ages is a profoundly silly movie, lacking even the veneer of social concern that marked director Adam Shankman’s previous movie musical adaptation of John Waters’ original Hairspray. It is, after all, a movie about eighties rock that repurposes “We Built This City” as a protest anthem and where one character lures another into stripping with a spirited rendition of Journey’s “Any Way You Want It.” But even though the overlong movie spends far too much time on its drippy leads, Sherrie (Julianne Hough), an Oklahoma girl drawn to the bright lights of Los Angeles, and Drew (an uttelry inert Diego Boneta) a barback with metal dreams, it’s full of hilarious, loose turns by veteran actors. I don’t really believe that singoffs will beat Family Research Council-style cultural conservatives, but it’s awfully fun to pretend for two hours that what the revolution really needs is Russell Brand on the barricades with a microphone.
Catherine Zeta-Jones is loonily committed as Patricia Whitmore, a cynical decency crusader. She’s married to Mike Whitmore (Bryan Cranston, in a role that will make it hard for Breaking Bad fans to look at Walter White the same way again), a candidate for the Mayor of Los Angeles who’s locked in his biggest financial backer by agreeing to shut down rock clubs and record stores on the Sunset Strip and turn the real estate over to a developer. Patricia is his main weapon in this fight, and her plan is to start by killing a club called the Bourbon Room, which employees Sherrie and Drew, just as it’s hosting the final show of a major band called Arsenal, whose lead singer, Stacee Jaxx, is having a meltdown. Her main tactic is rallying church groups—one woman complains that “my son ate my neighbor’s horse’s head because of Stacee Jaxx”— with a hilariously well-choreographed and -costumed rendition of “Hit Me With Your Best Shot.” But she’s not a moralist at heart, just an opportunist. It’s the rare portrayal of a decency advocate that acknowledges that there are motives at work other than fear and delusion.
That’s about as serious as the movie gets, though. Most of the fun is in watching the rest of the adults camp it up and do karaoke while the youngsters take themselves seriously. Tom Cruise divse into his performance as sex-drugs-and-managerial-indulgence-addled rock star Stacee Jaxx with a weirdly compelling ferocity: he can actually sing without embarrassing himself, and he moves around the stage with a sexy confidence. It’s the first time in years I’ve been able to think of him as anything other than a manic couch-jumper. Malin Ackerman is the best she’s ever been as a Rolling Stone reporter whose questions to Jaxx are surprisingly hard-hitting, even if her stripping down to her skivvies and dueting with Jaxx are not precisely what this fellow curly-haired, bespectacled entertainment reporter would recommend as the pinnacle of professionalism. Alec Baldwin tried to get out of his contract with the movie at the last minute, which is too bad. As club manager Dennis Dupree, he’s a Bizarro Jack Donaghy, and the movie would have done well to devote more time to his love story than to to the drippy romance between Sherrie and Drew. It’s similarly too bad that Mary J. Blige, filling the unfortunately common slot in musicals for black women who have little to do but whose voices put their non-singing actor colleagues to shame, is saddled with the aforementioned role of an inconsistently-motivationed strip club manager who goes by the name of Justice.
Ultimately, Rock of Ages likes the idea of having something to say about the corny manufacturedness of the music industry more than it actually has something to say, or any self-awareness that it’s the product of the same processes it critiques. “I’m a stripper,” Sherrie confesses to Drew at one point. “I’m in a boy band,” he responds. “You win,” Sherrie tells him, ceding pride of place in humiliation to him. But in Rock of Ages, as in the real world, processed boy bands have outlasted debauched rock.