Sherrie Christian (Julianne Hough) didn’t catch the midnight train going an-y-where; it was more like the day bus headed (not unlike Christina Aguilera in Burlesque) straight to Los Angeles. Armed with some very large hair and a suitcase full of rock albums, Sherrie dreams of making it as a singer — and, because this is downtown Los Angeles in the 1980s, is accosted by prostitutes and then has her luggage stolen. Fortunately for her, this happens right in front of the famed Whiskey A Go-Go, I mean, Bourbon Room, the very place where many of those albums were recorded. And, even more fortunate, the album theft is witnessed by Drew Boley (Diego Boneta), a Bourbon bar back and one of the many employees who is hoping for his own shot at rock ’n’ roll stardom. While Drew can’t get her luggage back, he can help her get a job, convincing Bourbon Room owner Dennis Dupree (Alec Baldwin), an aging rock fanboy, to let Sherrie take over for a waitress who just quit. Dennis agrees in part because the Bourbon is gearing up for what he hopes will be a big night. Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise), sort of an Axl Rose times Jon Bon Jovi, will be playing the Bourbon to launch his solo career. If his manager, Paul Gill (Paul Giamatti), can get Jaxx there, Dennis and his sidekick Lonny (Russell Brand) will be able to pay the Bourbon Room’s back taxes and keep anti-rock crusader Patricia Whitmore (Catherine Zeta-Jones) from closing the joint down.
Name a 1980s power ballad or rock anthem and there’s a good chance it appears somewhere in this movie. Rock of Ages is like one of those Glee mash-ups — actually, it’s a lot like Glee in general. Sadly, not joyous buoyant first-season Glee, more like the death march through hot-button social issues and pop songs that the show has become. There is a messiness here that, when combined with the cornball-ness of, say, a bus full of people singing “Sister Chrisitan,” starts to feel both overly earnest and deeply fake. Like one of those chain bistro menu items that has a thousand ingredients in an attempt to look fancy but just ends up tastes vaguely like sweet French onion dip, (e.g. Buffalo-Caribbean Chicken Tenders, with mango-buffalo barbecue sauce, pineapple-jalapeño salsa and blue cheese dip — it’s a real thing.)
Rock of Ages is so messy, so cheesy that it took me a while to start to consider that perhaps this badness — hammy acting, questionable singing, goofy plot — is on purpose. Cruise’s bizarre rock god performance, Zeta-Jones’ ridiculously overheated rock hater, Giamatti’s sleazy manager, Baldwin’s burnout — these characters can seem like bad performances unless you consider them through the lens of camp. This is one of the rare times when you probably don’t want to try see the characters as real people, you want to see them as two-dimensional caricatures. They are Oompa Loompas, they are Lost Boys, they are poodle skirt-wearing extras from Grease, they are the personification of jazz hands. In that light, the movie can start to seem like a fun carnival ride that someone — not me, per se, but maybe somebody out there who enjoys a good spoof and has affection for Broadway musicals and classic rock — with find a goofy good time.
It’s either that or take Rock of Ages at face value and find yourself astounded by how lame the movie you’re watching is. C-
Rated PG-13 for sexual content, suggestive dancing, heavy drinking and language. Directed by Adam Shankman with a screenplay by Justin Theroux and Chris D’Arienzo and Allan Loeb from the musical book by D’Arienzo, Rock of Ages is two hours and three minutes long and is distributed by Warner Bros.