My biggest problem with Rock of Ages is that it lacked substance. To make a good film you need a story to tell, a point to make, or both. This film was really about sex, drugs, and rock and roll, just without the drugs. There was plenty of alcohol, and it was pretty clear that Tom Cruise’s character was indulging a bit too heavily in this, but examining the consequences of that really wasn’t somewhere this film wanted to go. And that’s not to say they should’ve gone there, as you really only have time for a painfully superficial exploration of that subject if you don’t want your movie to be “about” that.
I have a few more minor quibbles with the film. The use of rebellion anthem “We’re Not Going to Take it” by the pro-censorship forces, while it actually worked pretty well for the confrontational mashup they were going for, is nevertheless an odd context for that song. And, without getting into too much detail, on rare occasions when films portray sexually submissive men, why do they always have to be such negative images? It wasn’t a huge part of the film, and it actually worked pretty well with the whole morality/guilt angle for the censorship folks, but it still made me sigh due to the representational problem. And speaking of representation problems, why is it that the pro-censorship forces are composed nearly entirely of women? And for that matter, the only times we see large groups of women they’re either the censorship prudes, strippers, or groupies.
The aesthetic of the film was pretty fantastic in capturing the feel of the decade they were going for, and the song selection was spectacular. Tom Cruise was absolutely hilarious as a caricature of a rock and roll “god.” What little plot there was didn’t take any real twists and turns, and didn’t make you think a whole lot. It was mostly just a convenient excuse to string together a series of big setpiece musical performances and take you on a guided tour of 80s aesthetics. One unfortunate side effect of having a plot designed almost exclusively for convenience was that characters frequently made maddeningly idiotic decisions. (“Wait, you just went through a montage of quitting waitress jobs because male customers kept sexually harassing you, so you went to work for a strip club?”)
This film is ultimately all style and no substance, but that doesn’t stop it from being a lot of fun. There are some genuinely great performances by the aforementioned Cruise, Alec Baldwin, and Paul Giamatti (has he ever been bad in anything?) I barely noticed anything about the two leads, despite the film ostensibly being about them. They’re both very pretty, and dressed and groomed to fit right in with the 80s aesthetic of the film. They don’t get in the way of the much more interesting secondary characters, so good for them I guess. In a way, that’s sort of a microcosm of the film as a whole. Just don’t go in expecting too much, and you should be fine.