“Sweet” and “sentimental” and “rock ’n’ roll” aren’t meant to be used in the same sentence. But that’s the road the mildly amusing comedy The Rocker travels.
This School of Rock clone might be another bucket from Hollywood’s bottomless well of “boys who refuse to grow up” and might be set in the hedonistic hard-drinking, hotel-room-trashing world of rock. But it’s most at home getting misty-eyed over the Golden Age of Hair Bands, at the familiar, comfy rhythms of the band-rises-to-the-top story line, at the idea that every loser deserves a second chance at glory.
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That’s what Rob “Fish” Fishman finds at his feet when his nephew’s power-pop band asks him to fill in when they land a gig at their high school prom. It’s a big deal to Fish (Rainn Wilson). Twenty years before, the goofy, gonzo, sweaty show-boating drummer was kicked out of the band he named and helped found, Vesuvius. He’s been living with the bitter disappointment of that ever since. The endless run of dead-end jobs and relationships sabotaged by his hatred for Vesuvius aren’t helped by the fact that Fish lives in Cleveland, home to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a place where Vesuvius is bound, without Fish.
But with portly nephew keyboardist Matt (Josh Gad), cute bassist Amelia (Emma Stone) and dreamy singer-songwriter Curtis (real-life singer-songwriter Teddy Geiger) and their band, A.D.D. (Attention Deficit Disorder), maybe Fish will finally get his shot. All it takes is an accidental naked drummer rehearsal video (“Hello, YouTube!”) to make A.D.D. Internet sensations. The next thing you know, they’re signed to a record label and on the road, responsible kids and their irresponsible father-drummer figure, a dude still trapped in the ’80s, getting trashed and trashing hotel rooms. A pre-show ritual? He throws up, and tucks it into his pants.
Eventually, the lead singer’s mom (a confident and amusing Christina Applegate) has to chaperone on this bus ride down the road to the “big rock show.”
Wilson doesn’t let this guy become a caricature, which is a double-edged sword. He’s funny and touching, un-ironic in the extreme. He runs through the full Will Ferrell repertoire here (naked) without ever going as far as Ferrell does to win a laugh. Fish is real, a guy who “lived my life wondering ‘What if?,’” just one of the life lessons he passes on to his bandmates. But the movie needed a freer version of this “free spirit” he’s playing.
Will Arnett is his usual hilarious self in a supporting turn as the Poison/Whitesnake-ish lead singer for Vesuvius. Jason Sudeikis kills as a weasel from the record company: “You’re cool, man. Cool as a fan. Vin Diesel-wrapped-in-a-Jeremy-Piven-pie cool.” Stone makes a strong impression as the brooding, lovesick bass player, mooning over Curtis.
Still, the whole feels like a rock-drummer farce with one arm tied behind its back. Director Peter Cattaneo (The Full Monty) is more at home with the stage moments and the sentimental stuff than he is with the funny bits and funny lines. The Rocker feels safe, a long way from the cutting edge, a PG guy in a PG-13 movie, a comedy with too much “parental guidance” to be rock ’n’ roll.