Rock of Ages Is Sometimes Fun-Awful—But Mostly It’s Just Awful

Though Tom Cruise fire-breathes some life into this ripoff of '80s hair-metal rock, it's still a ludicrously bad Schlock of Ages

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David James / Warner Bros.

Julianne Hough as Sherrie Christian and Diego Boneta as Drew Boley in 'Rock of Ages'

All fear the aging rock god Stacee Jaxx. Front man for the ’80s hair-metal band Arsenal, he has plunged deep into the pool of his legend and hit bottom. Sporting an autobiography of body tattoos (pistols at his hips, a flying bat on his upper back), Jaxx struts like a centaur with the back end cut off and admits emotional intimacy to no creature but his pet baboon. An icon and parody of the preening pop star, he might be mad — his roadie says, “He just told me to turn the radio off… the radio in his head” — or simply weary of inhabiting the lurid cartoon that is Stacee Jaxx.

As played with an awesomely deranged intensity by Tom Cruise, Stacee has the creepy-sexy pulse that might have given Rock of Ages some cinematic life. But director Adam Shankman’s movie — based on Chris D’Arienzo’s Broadway musical that was filled with ’80s anthems and set in the teeming West Hollywood rock scene of the Whiskey a Go Go nightclub (here called the Bourbon) — is so willfully bad that not even Cruise’s valiant CPR can help. Though it has moments where it rises to fun-awful status, with a hideous giddiness that turns moviegoers into rubbernecking motorists at a crash site, it’s mostly just awful. If the film were a Broadway-bound show, it would have closed out of town.

One of the minor tragedies of Broadway in the past half-century is that it almost never tapped into the pop music of the rock ‘n roll era. For three decades, from the 1920s through the ’50s, Broadway songs were top-of-the-charts hits; then Elvis and his kin sent radio music into the mixed-race vernacular, while Broadway composers hewed to the old models, or went artsy à la Stephen Sondheim. Hair, the “love-rock musical” that spawned four top-five hits when it landed on the Great White Way in 1968, might have restored the connection, but that was a fluke. Broadway musicals went the serioso route, and rarely generated songs anyone under 50 would want to remember.

(READ: Corliss on the Encores! 2001 revival of Hair)

The result was that, as the years passed, and rock fans got old and rich enough to patronize Broadway, there were few old shows to revive for them. In the ’70s, two musicals — Grease and The Rocky Horror Show — tapped the sounds of proto-rock, but even these faux-oldies, or foldies, took decades to find a descendant (the 2002 fake-’60s Hairspray). Producers found it easier simply to lift song catalogs from individual groups (ABBA’s Mamma Mia!, The Four Season’s The Jersey Boys) or from a particular subgenre (the Sun Records sound for Million Dollar Quartet, ’70s-’80s concert rock for Priscilla Queen of the Desert). Rock of Ages, which opened on Broadway three years ago and is still running, fit this trend of nostalgic appropriation. Music that once exuded the musk of danger and rebellion now provided a soothing flashback for folks in their 50s with long memories and expense accounts. Seeing the show was like returning to your high school prom without having to meet all the cool dudes who’d devolved into fat cats.

(READ: Corliss on Mamma Mia! and The Jersey Boys)

Even for those too young or too old for ’80s rock — one teen I know thinks Dee Snider’s band was called Hitler’s Sister — might enjoy the spectacle of Rock of Ages, if the movie’s energy didn’t seem so desperate and cynical. Shankman, who directed the perky film adaptation of Hairspray and says he grew up with the Whiskey and the Tower Records store on Sunset as his twin cathedrals, expends his one decent idea for visualizing the music in the first scene: when the Oklahoma refugee Sherrie Christian (Julianne Hough, from the recent Footloose remake) starts singing Night Ranger’s “Sister Christian” on a bus to L.A. and the other passengers join in on the chorus. The number hints at the community that rock ‘n roll could forge in a group of strangers. After that, the movie is pretty much a debacle.

(READ: Corliss on the Footloose remake)

To Shankman, the period — 1987 — was all bad hair and flicking tongues. Sherrie’s predestined romance with the Bourbon employee and would-be singer Drew Bodey (Diego Boneta) serves as the plot’s anodyne anchor. The blond Hough, who looks like a composite sketch of Hugh Hefner’s last eight girlfriends, and the soft, anonymous Boneta, who could be the young Trey Parker as painted on velvet, are the bland clichés around whom the movie’s rowdier clichés cavort. One is the Bourbon’s owner Dennis Dupree (Alec Baldwin, in a role clearly meant for one of his lesser brothers), a hefty fellow who is first seen diving into his club’s mosh pit like a whale leaping onto a beach and crushing the vacationers. Managing to seem simultaneously angry and asleep, Baldwin and his admirers can put this performance out of mind until his next stint hosting Saturday Night Live, when he really must be called on to do a riff on this character and the movie — if it’s not in the DVD reject bin by then.

Offering proof that good actors can easily be tricked into appearing in bad movies, Bryan Cranston and Catherine Zeta-Jones show up as the L.A. Mayor and his Tipper Gore-y wife, who’s on a crusade to clean up the Strip. Channeling the Michelle Pfeiffer role of the anti-rock prude masking her own prurience in Shankman’s Hairspray, Zeta-Jones belts out “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” in a church while making scrotum-grabbing gestures — and while Cranston gets a vigorous sexual spanking from his aide-de-slut. (Fun fact, parents: this sleazy artifact is rated PG-13. The MPAA ratings board must have nodded off during the naughtier bits).

(READ: Corliss on Broadway’s Hairspray and Hollywood’s)

Even Cruise gets ground down in the proceedings. He has a nice scene with a Rolling Stone writer (Malin Ackerman) who — dressed in bad-teacher mode with spectacles, a frilly blouse and a skirt that ends at her panty line — has come to interview Stacee. Then they have fellatio-miming sex while singing Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is.” I don’t think much about ’80s rock is sacred, but to assert that the love in that song is exclusively carnal is to show a criminal misunderstanding of that decade’s great liturgical ballad.

The script, credited or debited to D’Arienzo, Justin Theroux and Allan Loeb, treats hoary old movie tropes as if they were found gold — as when Drew tells Sherrie, “I sorta started workin’ on somethin’ after we met last night” and sings the first few lines of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin'” (which, we grant, makes more sense here than it did at the end of the final Sopranos episode). And in the banter of Baldwin and Russell Brand, as the Bourbon’s emcee, Rock of Ages generously offers movie critics a plethora of lines suitable for a snarky summation. “Did you just sigh audibly?” Brand asks Baldwin. No, Russell, that was the audience.

But I’ll go with this comment by Baldwin as something or other has just gone amiss. “Omigod,” he says, “I just threw up. In my pants. Out of my ass.” That’s Rock of Ages: it means to be nicely dirty but leaves you feeling soiled.