Rainn Wilson struggles in mediocre Rocker

by Glen Baity

As anyone who has witnessed the rise of “American Idol” can attest, the only thing America loves more than a rock star is a wannabe rock star. So you can expect at least a somewhat positive reception for The Rocker, a musical wish-fulfillment fantasy that answers the burning question:

What would happen if Tommy Lee joined up with the Jonas Brothers?

The answer: Occasional hilarity. Very occasional. Rainn Wilson stars as Robert “Fish” Fishman, who in 1986 was kicked out of Vesuvius, a Cleveland hair-metal powerhouse on the verge of world domination. He never recovered from the indignity. Twenty years later, out of a job and with no place to live, he moves in with his sister, brother-in-law and their two kids, one of whom is a chubby high-schooler with a garage band. When the band’s drummer flakes out, Fish steps in and subsequently rediscovers his love of the rock (or what passes for it these days). Should it be any surprise that a record deal and Midwestern tour ensue? I’ve been a fan of Wilson since his creepy-sweet turn as Arthur on HBO’s “Six Feet Under,” and his time on the excellent US version of “The Office” has only deepened my appreciation. I think The Rocker is the wrong vehicle for him, but it didn’t necessarily have to be. The film is built, unwisely, around its lead’s personality, a risky proposition in any case and a particularly bad one here. If his body of work is any indicator, Wilson is at his best as part of an ensemble, and the characters in The Rocker are one-note, if that. Christina Applegate does well as the unofficial band mom, but hers is the only role with a hint of something beneath the surface. The rest of the characters we spend our time with are either insecure teenage archetypes or those unshakeable rock n’ roll movie clichés: groupies and evil record company execs (Vesuvius, fronted by a mascara caked Will Arnett, is actually really funny, but they only show up at the beginning and the end of the film). The script is middling at best, though it had me chuckling here and there with a few one-liners that sound like they might have been improvised. Screenwriters Maya Forbes and Wallace Wolodarsky don’t seem terribly confident in their material — several scenes end with Wilson getting smacked in the head or taking a projectile to the crotch, transparent pieces of slapstick that do a poor job distracting from the unnatural flow of the dialogue. Too often, the film shrugs off jokes altogether and devolves into “The Rainn Wilson Zany-Face Show,” which is about as funny as the same show starring Jack Black or Jim Carrey. The Rocker scored some unintentional points with me because of its endearingly out-of-touch story arc, in which a garage band dreams of signing to a major label, making a video and becoming super famous. Honestly, does any young rocker aspire to that sort of fable anymore? The record industry is in shambles, MTV no longer plays videos and the age of the larger-than-life rock band seems to have ended, perhaps permanently this time. Against that real-world backdrop, The Rocker is downright quaint. So the film’s heart is in the right place, but the plain fact is that anyone can make hay out of a rock n’ roll fantasy. It’s alluring for all sorts of reasons, with its promises of eternal youth, fun and relevance. It’s what makes films like Almost Famous instant classics; it even ensures that otherwise terrible films have at least one or two hair raising moments when the lights go down, the bass drum starts thumping and the crowd goes wild. But there ought to be more to the equation, and The Rocker, despite some ingratiating moments, just doesn’t have it. For one, it bears too striking a resemblance to 2003’s infinitely superior School of Rock, another fluffy fantasy piece about one man’s pursuit of a long-delayed dream. But unlike that film, The Rocker is too eager to go for the cheap laugh, and the result is a film full of forced fun and enthusiasm. I love a rock n’ roll daydream as much as the next guy, but The Rocker won’t give you anything you can’t get from an afternoon playing “Guitar Hero” with your buddies.

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