'Rock of Ages': '80s-inspired musical is off-key, critics say
"Rock of Ages," adapted from the stage musical of the same name, is set amid the 1980s rock scene on the Sunset Strip — but it's also, to put it in contemporary terms, something of a mash-up, sampling songs from the era (by Bon Jovi, Pat Benatar, Foreigner), Broadway flourishes and Hollywood tropes (including a "Footloose"-style killjoy). Tom Cruise is the headliner, playing an aggrandized rock god named Stacee Jaxx, and Adam Shankman ("Hairspray") directs.
Although Cruise's outsize performance is earning praise from critics, many reviewers are saying that "Rock of Ages" fails to hit the right notes.
The Times' Kenneth Turan is among the critics giving "Rock of Ages" a positive review, declaring it "a triumph of genial impudence over good sense and better taste" and "the guiltiest of guilty pleasures." The film succeeds, Turan writes, "because of its unlikely combination of a guileless, thunderously cliched boy-meets-girl plot structure conveyed in a sophisticated, showbiz-savvy style." The acting helps too, with "a sterling group of supporting actors to keep us entertained" and especially "fearless work" by Cruise.
Ann Hornaday of the Washington Post finds the film "an unusually enervating experience" that only offers "ersatz swagger." Hornaday writes that Shankman "gets too mired in plotty cul de sacs, manufactured setbacks and numbers that are all staged as show-stoppers." All told, despite Cruise's fun, winking performance, "'Rock of Ages' never attains Bic-lighter-worthy transcendence."
The Hollywood Reporter's David Rooney also dings the director, who "has not found a way to translate the musical’s affectionately mocking humor to film" and "lacks a light touch." Although Cruise's "outrageously egomaniacal characterization should be a hoot," the star's "quasi-mystical sozzled intensity gets wearisome. There’s just too much of him." The only real highlight, according to Rooney, is Russell Brand (playing a weathered rocker and club technician), who proves a "live wire" and "easily the film's best asset."
The Wall Street Journal's Joe Morgenstern also could have used less of Cruise, whose "dissolute swaggerer is a cheerless clod, all incipience and no payoff with one exception," and more of Brand, who, "with his surfeit of warped wit, might have been terrific in the Stacee Jaxx role."
The Chicago Sun-Times' Roger Ebert, however, says that "Rock of Ages" offers "zesty entertainment, with some energetic musical numbers," even if it "wins no prizes for originality." More important — and more compelling — than the formulaic central love story is the "high-profile cast," whose members "never seem to be slumming" and "play their roles with great intensity and earnestness, which is really the only way to do satire."
In the end, it would appear "Rock of Ages" isn't quite the timeless classic its title promises. Then again, for anyone intrigued by the notion of Tom Cruise cavorting in leather pants and a devil's head codpiece, it might be the best show in town.
— Oliver Gettell
Photo: Tom Cruise in "Rock of Ages." Credit: David James/Warner Bros.