January 8, 2009

Written by Jeff Giles

The Rocker (20th Century Fox)

January 27, 2009


Director: Peter Cattaneo

Starring: Rainn Wilson, Christina Applegate, Jeff Garlin, Jane Lynch, Emma Stone, Teddy Geiger, Will Arnett, Fred Armisen

Eddie Murphy made it look easy, but for most television stars, the leap to the big screen is a journey fraught with peril – heck, even Bruce Willis’ film career suffered through Blind Date and Sunset before catching fire with Die Hard – and Rainn Wilson hasn’t been any luckier than most. Although he’s frequently brilliant as the slightly nefarious Dwight Schrute on NBC’s The Office, he’s proven himself less than adept at choosing quality feature scripts; his last three films – My Super Ex-Girlfriend, The Last Mimzy, and The Rocker – were greeted with almost equal indifference by critics and filmgoers.

Of the bunch, The Rocker seemed the most intriguing, at least on paper – in it, Wilson starred as Robert “Fish” Fishman, the wild-eyed drummer for an ‘80s hair metal band named Vesuvius, who is unceremoniously fired by the group on the eve of its long-awaited big break. Twenty bitter years later, Fish’s nephew begs him to sit in with his band for their big prom gig, and, well…you can probably fill in the blanks from there, but the setup was so rife with possibilities that a certain amount of stock formula could have been forgiven.

Could have been, that is, if The Rocker didn’t suck monkeys.

Wilson is a gifted comedian, one who has perfected the art of fearless comedy; he’s got a Ferrell-esque willingness to make himself look stupid and unappealing, but he’s better at finding his characters’ hidden layers, bringing them to life, and – most importantly – making the viewer care about them. It’s difficult to imagine what he was thinking when he signed on for this disjointed mess; just reading the script – which has his character outrun a speeding van, get thrown from the roof of said van, hit his head on an attic roof, and fall off a ladder in the first 15 minutes – should have been enough to let him know that he was probably looking at something more suited to, say, Tim Allen.

Looking at the rest of the cast – which includes funny people like Jane Lynch, Will Arnett, Fred Armisen, and Jeff Garlin – you’d think that even if Wilson’s character is a pratfalling buffoon, the rest of The Rocker might have a brain, but you’d be mostly wrong; it’s one of those movies in which the important stuff all happens in montages, rock stars are made and broken in the blink of an eye, and people still wait in line for three hours to buy the latest CD from a 20-year-old hair metal band that looks like Poison and sounds like Dokken.

All this being said, perhaps The Rocker’s most annoying feature is that it isn’t completely terrible. If Maya Forbes and Wally Wolodarsky’s script had the common courtesy to stick with the brainless tone it sets in its opening scenes, the viewer could at least settle into a comfortable 90 minutes of hating the movie – but they actually manage to get off some laugh-out-loud lines in between all the disappointment, and the cast does an admirable job of getting the most out of the thin material – particularly Wilson, Stone, and Garlin, who are as likable as ever, and Howard Hesseman, whose two lines are arguably the funniest in the film. (It also bears mentioning that although Teddy Geiger’s performance as a teen idol named Curtis is fairly wooden, his singing ain’t bad.)

Given how thoroughly ignored The Rocker was in theaters, it’s a little surprising to note that 20th Century Fox is releasing it in a $30 “special edition” package that includes a pair of commentary tracks (one with director Peter Cattaneo and Wilson; the other with castmates Geiger, Stone, Josh Gad , and Jason Sudeikis), a digital copy, deleted scenes, a gag reel, featurettes, a music video, and more. If people weren’t willing to spend $7 to see The Rocker during its theatrical run, it seems unlikely that many of them will pony up for bonus material, but stranger things have happened, and there’s something sort of sweet about seeing this kind of unfounded optimism in a multinational megacorporation. That doesn’t mean The Rocker is worth a purchase – or even, on most nights, a rental – but still, points for trying, right?

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