Playing more like a commercial for the Time Life CD set of 1980s hair-band favorites than a splashy summer picture, “Rock of Ages” is so packed full of songs that there’s hardly room for a compelling narrative.
That may be why it’s so confusing that director Adam Shankman — who worked wonders with the surprise hit “Hairspray” — has chosen to split his focus on a whole slew of stories, most of which could be easily cut without anyone even noticing.
The main story seems to center around Sherrie (Julianne Hough), a fresh-off-the-bus Midwestern girl, and her hunky love interest, Drew (a not so hunky Diego Boneta).
Except when it’s about their boss, Dennis Dupree (a misused Alec Baldwin), the owner of the legendary Bourbon Room, his growing pile of bills and his relationship with his right-hand man Lonny (Russell Brand, being Russell Brand).
And then sometimes it’s about Stacie Jaxx (Tom Cruise, in a surprisingly dynamic performance), the Axl Rose-like frontman of the band Arsenal who’s looking to go solo, or Patricia Whitmore (Catherine Zeta-Jones), the mayor’s crusader wife who is on a mission to shut down the sin on the Sunset Strip, starting with the Bourbon Room.
Perhaps Shankman and writing trio Justin Theroux, Allan Loeb and Chris D’Arienzo (the creator of the original stage production, which serves as the basis for the film) have confused their mediums, as the film version of “Rock of Ages” may still be well suited for the theater.
It’s easy to imagine that the non-stop barrage of hair-band songs would sound great in a live venue, but hearing Cruise belt out an overly produced, ultra-slick version of “Pour Some Sugar on Me” doesn’t quite capture that same raw energy.
The acting actually offsets quite a few of the film’s shortcomings. Cruise burns with the same quiet cockiness that served him so well in “Magnolia,” arguably his best role to date. There are also some good smaller performances by Paul Giamatti, Malin Akerman, Bryan Cranston and Mary J. Blige.
But unfortunately it’s not enough to overcompensate for the film’s biggest problem — its jumbled and predictable narrative. Things seem to happen just to give the story a predictable shove forward. It’s fairly easy to figure out why Patricia is so against rock music, and it’s not surprising when Drew and Sherrie run into trouble after Drew misinterprets a moment outside of Stacie’s dressing room. Drew, in proper film fashion, throws a big tantrum without actually asking Sherrie about it.
When the stage version of “Rock of Ages” was originally conceived in 2005, it was easy to see the appeal of a show that utilizes these songs to tell the story. But now that “Glee” has basically run the same concept (and Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’,” which appears in the film) into the ground, the idea feels stale. It’s a problem Shankman never finds a way to solve.