Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise) is a rock legend who can’t be counted on to show up on time or at all. But when he enters the room, he’s hard to miss.
In his trademark bandanna, sunglasses, fur coat and rippling pecs, the tattooed vocalist causes women to faint and men to cower in fear that his pet baboon will assault them. His aloof, unpredictable behavior suggests a kooky hybrid of Axl Rose, Michael Jackson and the fictional Pink from “The Wall.”
Cruise provides a steady blast of mojo to “Rock of Ages,” a conventional, rather square musical set in 1987 Los Angeles. The film is also something of a comedy. And if viewed at the right angle, it might actually be a parody.
But there’s a split between those in the cast who are making fun of this disposable era in rock history (i.e. Cruise) and those earnestly attempting to turn it into “High School Musical: The Slutty Years.”
Julianne Hough stars as the fresh-faced Sherrie Christian, who arrives in L.A. from Oklahoma (changed from Kansas in this adaptation of Chris D’Arienzo’s Broadway hit), all to the strains of Night Ranger’s awful “Sister Christian.”
She is instantly mugged, of course. But wannabe songwriter Drew Boley (newcomer Diego Boneta) steps in and helps her get a job at the Bourbon Room, a proxy for the Whisky a Go Go.
This famed Sunset Strip venue is run by Dennis (a miscast Alec Baldwin), who is hoping a farewell performance by Jaxx’s band, Arsenal, can pull the club out of debt.
Meanwhile, Mayor Whitmore (Bryan Cranston) and his Tipper Gore-like wife, Patricia (Catherine Zeta-Jones), are waging a campaign against rock music. Patricia harbors a vendetta against Jaxx, whom she describes as “a machine that spews out three things: sex, painful music and sex.”
Since the performances by the two leading actors barely register, Cruise and the supporting cast are leaned on by “Hairspray” director Adam Shankman to keep things interesting.
The funniest sequences involve Jaxx’s slimy manager (Paul Giamatti), who is eager to move on to a more easily controlled client. An improper interview the singer enjoys with a poodle-haired Rolling Stone reporter (Malin Akerman) supplies the flick’s sexiest, weirdest moments.
Otherwise, “Rock of Ages” is like two hours of karaoke at a bar that plays only songs you hear at strip joints.
The musical also operates under the flawed premise that the hair metal scene of the 1980s had integrity. That it was cool. That it actually rocked.
Never mind that this anything-for-a-buck genre disappeared the instant Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” hit the airwaves.” (The movie implies the emergence of boy bands killed the scene, but Seattle’s legitimately rocking grunge movement was the actual assassin.)
It’s one of many clues that the filmmakers have only superficial knowledge of the musical era they’re depicting. How else to explain a project ostensibly about the Sunset Strip’s heyday that highlights songs by Starship, Foreigner and Quarterflash? Shankman and company believe any song from the ’80s is fair game.
Thus when Jaxx, Drew and Sherrie all take the stage for the grand finale, they belt out the overplayed anthem “Don’t Stop Believin’ ” by Journey — a pop act whose name would have drawn a chorus of boos from the Whisky crowds.
“Rock of Ages” isn’t quite deserving of boos. But it’s a movie that doesn’t merit much applause either.