Down Beat

'Rocker' kids are all right, but Rainn Wilson's drummer wannabe taps too often into the same note

Review: C+

August 20, 2008|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,Sun reporter

The Rocker sees itself as two things: a testimony to the liberating power of rock and a showcase for the comedic talents of Rainn Wilson. Too bad it shortchanges the music and fails to provide much evidence for Wilson's appeal. It's a film that sometimes wants to be School of Rock, sometimes wants to be This Is Spinal Tap, but ends up more like an uninspired episode of The Partridge Family.

Wilson stars as Robert "Fish" Fishman, the Pete Best of heavy metal. Like Best, who can lay claim to being the unluckiest drummer in history by virtue of having been fired from The Beatles about a year before they hit the big time, Fish is doomed to be little more than a footnote to rock history. Though a founding member of heavy-metal behemoths Vesuvius, he was unceremoniously kicked out in favor of a record company executive's kid with drumming aspirations of his own. The slight has been eating away at Fish for 20 years.

Potential redemption comes when his nephew's band, A.D.D. (a name that's one of the film's finest touches), loses its drummer and, out of desperation, persuades Fish to fill in. The band isn't exactly a hit, since Fish's crazed drumming doesn't exactly fit in with A.D.D.'s teen-angst anthems. But Fish has been bitten by the fame bug once again, and this time, there's going to be no stopping him.

Wilson never stops trying to be screamingly funny as Fish, and therein lies much of The Rocker's problem. All Wilson can do in this film is act like an arrested adolescent and doff his clothes - neither of which is particularly funny, especially in extended doses. His act, strictly of the one-note variety, wears thin quickly.

Not that the film is without its strengths. Fish's bandmates, three teens who could use a shot of anarchic fun in their lives, are characters you root for. Frontman Curtis (Teddy Geiger), who handles the lyric-writing as well as the singing, looks and sounds like he really could front a band (although the songs, mostly labored odes to undiscovered love, could use some work). Bassist Amelia (Emma Stone) is sullen without being sordid, suggesting a truly conflicted teen, and not a Hollywood stereotype. And keyboard player Matt (Josh Gad), whose experiences with the band give him the self-confidence every shy, overweight teen craves, embodies far more of the promise of rock than Fish and his decades-long petulance.

Also welcome is Christina Applegate as Kim, Curtis' mom, who has the unenviable job of being the sane adult among this group of rock star wannabes. Applegate takes a character whose very function would seem to be a downer and turns her into one who lightens each scene in which she appears, thanks to a combination of winsomeness and level-headed compassion for every would-be rocker's dreams.

Still, it's distressing how resolutely unfunny much of The Rocker is. The set-up, in which Fish is tossed off so cavalierly, is simply heartless. One character, Jason Sudeikis' soulless band manager, spends the entire movie with the sole mission of getting on the audience's nerves - and succeeds.

And when the final confrontation between Fish and his erstwhile bandmates arrives, what should have been the film's comic high point fizzles into little more than a strained feel-good ending.

Hollywood has spent years trying to capture the anarchic spirit of rock 'n' roll on celluloid, rarely with much success. The Rocker doesn't advance the cause much; sure, it pays lip service to the power of rock to heal and invigorate, to infuse the dreams of every would-be guitarist in the world with just enough validity to make dreams possible, and just enough oomph to make them exciting.

But as often happens, the film tries too hard to calculate the incalculable. When Fish takes the sensitive, angst-ridden Curtis out on a joy ride that's supposed to exemplify the magic of rock 'n' roll, all it does it emphasize how little Fish really understands about the music he so cherishes.

chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

ONLINE

Watch a preview and see more photos from The Rocker at baltimoresun.com/rocker

The Rocker

(20th Century Fox) Starring Rainn Wilson, Christina Applegate. Directed by Peter Cattaneo. Rated PG-13 for drug and sexual references, nudity and language. Time 102 minutes.

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