Few Hollywood filmmakers have proven themselves to be as tone-deaf as Adam Shankman has during his recent foray into musicals. That Shankman has failed so miserably in the genre is surprising, given his background as a choreographer. But few films–let alone upbeat musicals– are as joyless and utterly lacking an understanding of cinematic kinetics as 2007’s “Hairspray” and now “Rock of Ages.”
In the ‘80s-set “Rock of Ages,” Shankman’s primary failing is that he is so obsessed with giving every member of his ensemble adequate screen-time–perhaps due to contractual obligation, given all the big stars involved–that he never imbues the film with any intimacy. For instance, in the first act, the director sets up a potentially great musical number between budding young lovers (Julianne Hough and Diego Boneta) in the aisles of an old-time record store, only to completely drain the mounting sexual tension by interspersing another pair of characters (Alec Baldwin and Russell Brand) in a separate location. Not only does this decision take away from the feeling of the sequence, it doesn’t work on a technical level — in even the most free-spirited of musicals, you can’t just cut to other characters mid-song without any kind of establishing shot.
That sequence is a microcosm of the entire movie; Shankman never gives the individual characters room to breathe, making it seem like they are in a perpetual cycle of interrupting one another. The lone exception is Tom Cruise’s washed-up rocker Stacee Jaxx, who gets a lot of screen-time but doesn’t do anything with it. Cruise, who has built a career on likability and charisma (at least in blockbusters like this), is forced to play against-type as an asshole who drinks so much he can barely stand up. The result is a boring character. When he isn’t singing, Cruise engages in nothing but mannered mumbling, so dull that he needs a monkey sidekick to enliven the proceedings (never a good sign). And when he is singing, it’s just pathetic; whereas director Brad Bird enabled Cruise to retain his action-star status at age 49 in “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol,” Shankman can’t keep the actor from seeming like a geezer as he belts out Bon Jovi’s “Dead or Alive,” no matter how chiseled his abs.
Shankman and writers Justin Theroux, Chris D’Arienzo, and Allan Loeb also made a critical mistake in keeping the movie, like the Broadway show on which it is based, relatively plotless, electing to win viewers over purely on ‘80s nostalgia and the musical numbers. This would have been fine had Shankman been a competent director capable of evoking said nostalgia or properly executing said musical numbers. But Shankman’s conceptualization of the setting extends no further than hairdos and props; it’s the ‘80s because Paul Giamatti has a cell-phone the size of a lamp, not because the movie brings out the actual spirit of the times. Shankman makes “Rock of Ages” a costume party, not a pathway to a bygone era. And as for the musical numbers — irrespective of poor direction, the use of mega-hit songs was a bad decision. Picking tunes that the audience recognize and can sing along with is one thing; forcing us to endure “I Want to Know What Love Is,” “Every Rose Has Its Thorn,” and “Don’t Stop Believing” for the millionth time each is another entirely.
If there’s one good thing about “Rock of Ages,” it’s Julianne Hough, who once again proves that she is not only beautiful, but a great screen presence worthy of Hollywood stardom. Unfortunately, Shankman and the writers waste all of Hough’s charm on one of the most ludicrous character arcs I’ve seen in some time, forcing her Sherrie to become a desperate stripper–sorry guys, it’s the PG-13, lingerie-wearing kind of stripper–at a club run by Mary J. Blige. You’re far better off re-watching Hough in Craig Brewer’s “Footloose” remake, a music-based film directed with actual skill. Don’t even think about seeing “Rock of Ages,” even out of morbid curiosity; causing the film to crash and burn at the box office is all audiences can do to ensure that Adam Shankman never touches a musical again.