“The Rocker” – Shake, Rattle & Redemption – 2 & ½ popcorns

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By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic

It helps if you dig the genre, a rock ‘n’ roll sliver of the old Show Biz tale that arguably began with Tommy Sands’s title role in the Kraft TV Theatre production of “The Singin’ Idol” (1957). Not that “The Rocker” will join that movie, “American Hot Wax” (1978) or “Almost Famous” (2000) in the pantheon of essential rock films. It merely keeps the beat.

Only the idea— a second chance at the bright lights, big city and all those groupies— is great. A rock variation on “Damn Yankees” (1958) but without the Faust stuff, its first stop is the 1980s. There, Robert “Fish” Fishman is gloriously banging the skins for heavy metal icons-to-be, Vesuvius. All signs are go. Then the roof falls in. He’s out!

Fast-forward twenty years. Fishman, only adequately portrayed by Rainn Wilson, is working a nondescript job for a humdrum Cleveland corporation, his loser co-workers unaware of his near brush with stardom. They extol the virtues of Rock Hall of Fame-bound Vesuvius. Fish needs no great hubbub to be fired. We suspect it’s a regular ritual.  

Down and out again, self-defined only by what he has not become, he is, in a figure of speech, a Fish out of champagne. Darkening his sister Lisa’s (Jane Lynch) doorstep, doubtfully for the first time, he is lovingly/begrudgingly granted the attic until he can once again get his act together. The cost? A lecture about growing up.

Of course, he has no such intention, at least not in this part of the primarily predictable plot. The dude is just crashing. But because he doesn’t really believe he’ll have another stab at fame, what follows holds more fascination than it should. Still, a gullibility pill wouldn’t hurt when nephew Matt implores: The prom is nigh. His band needs a drummer. 

Jump tracks with the screenplay for a bit. It’s no longer all about Fish as we meet the acronymically named A.D.D., as in Attention Deficit Disorder, each member with a tale of woe. Well, as much woe as is dramatically healthy for a bunch of privileged teenagers. Curtis is moody; Amelia is an emerging feminist, and Matt, well, Matt’s fat…but jovial.

They do the prom to mixed reviews, Fish’s hotdogging earning the group’s displeasure. Gosh. He can’t even make it with this bunch of overgrown moppets. He entreats them. To sweeten the plea, he paints the rock ‘n’ roll equivalent of lollipops and sugarplum fairies. He will get them a real, honest to goodness gig. O.K., he’s on probation. 

Now, assuming Fish can revive some old contacts, only one thing blocks the road they hope to take their show on…namely, the parents. Unfortunately, after receiving approval, they soon screw up. Only Matt’s father, Stan (Jeff Garlin), isn’t upset as he asks, “What’s it like to trash a hotel room?” The other moms and dads hardly share the vicarious thrill.

But then, this film just brims with grace. Calming the parents whilst raising her stock in the script, Curtis’s mom, Kim, played by Christina Applegate, offers to chaperone the gang. It’s obvious, she notes, that Fish isn’t adult enough for the task. She and the reclaimed drummer sharpen knives. But we can guess the real upshot of all this.

Along the yellow brick highway traversed by the star-struck crew, they accumulate the human trappings common to their musical quest. Howard Hesseman is Gator, the tour bus driver/roadie who’s seen it all. And, in the film’s one truly authentic portrayal, Jason Sudeikis is a rip as David Marshall, the smarmy, duplicitous record company agent.

His performance is indicative of what the film does best. While you can expect no great twists or turns from “The Rocker,” it does spew some decent side business and philosophy about the pursuit in question. Acerbity and warm glows take turns entertaining the emotions, if not totally capturing the imagination. The kids are O.K.

Singer/composer Teddy Geiger acceptably overplays brooding Curtis, the front man whose abandonment issues help inspire his wistful creativity. Winsome in a well-scrubbed way is Emma Stone’s Amelia. We see her doing the scene a few years and then running for Congress. Josh Gad’s Matt assures the rock dream doesn’t exclude the hefty.

Indeed, a better lead might have instilled a more credible note…but to what purpose? As is, Mr. Rainn’s performance serves the film’s pop culture silliness, its tone no more important than a beach blanket movie. True, it won’t find a place on anyone’s hit parade. But when it comes to upbeat, wish-fulfilling mediocrity, “The Rocker” is down with it.

“The Rocker,” rated PG-13, is a Twentieth Century Fox release directed by Peter Cattaneo and stars Rainn Wilson, Teddy Geiger and Christina Applegate. Running time: 102 minutes


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