Rock of Ages rolls on and on, good vibrations in Hysteria

by Mark Burger

From the Broadway stage, where it scored five Tony nominations and recently enjoyed a revival, Rock of Ages is great fun. It’s not always a great movie, alas, and rarely a disciplined one — but on occasion it hits magical heights.

Set in that mystical, magical era of 1987 in the mystical, magical city of Los Angeles, much of the film’s action revolves around the Bourbon Room, a rock club not unlike (and clearly inspired by) LA’s own Whiskey A-Go-Go, where girls drink for free, the music’s always loud and the attitude is pure rock ‘n’ roll — and that’s just the way owner Dennis Dupree (Alec Baldwin) and faithful manager Lonny (Russell Brand) like it, even while Bible-thumping protestors do their best and worst to shut the Bourbon Room’s doors for good.

At the heart of the story — underneath the big hair, big attitude and power ballads — is what lies at the heart of so many musicals of yore: It’s the story of a boy (Diego Boneto) and a girl (Julianne Hough), and their collective and respective aspirations toward stardom. The film’s flash and panache, plentiful throughout, merely dress up showbiz cliches that are as old as, well, showbiz itself.

That’s not to downplay the film itself, which is blessed with some genuine showstopping numbers and a friendly cast. It may seem unusual to some viewers to find the likes of Baldwin, Paul Giamatti and Catherine Zeta-Jones in a musical, but many cast members have extensive stage experience, which serves them, and the film, well. Tom Cruise is especially strong as dissipated rock god Stacee Jaxx, standing in for any number of ’80s-era superstars. Malin Akermann also registers as a sexy Rolling Stone reporter who’s got Stacee’s number but finds it difficult to resist him all the same.

Rock of Ages is one of those films were the parts are greater than the whole — and some parts are flat-out great. Zeta-Jones’ rendition of Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” is an instant classic, but aside from that she doesn’t have that much to do. Nor does the ever-busy Bryan Cranston, cast as her ambitious but adulterous politician husband, bent on eradicating that scourge of the earth known as rock ‘n’ roll before it corrupts the youth of America.

Some purists may object to the MTVstyle of musical numbers on display here, but given the ’80s setting such an approach is warranted. For better or worse, MTV changed the landscape of music and remains a palpable inspiration. And although the film’s got its share of sex, drink and rock ‘n’ roll, there are few references to drugs and no mention of AIDS — all the better to retain a more audience-friendly PG-13 rating.

As enjoyable as it frequently is, Rock of Ages tends to overstay its welcome. By the time Mary J. Blige turns up as the manager of an LA strip club where Hough briefly finds a safe heaven (cue Journey’s “Any Way You Want It”), the energy is severely flagging — and it’s not Blige’s fault in any way. It’s simply that the party has gone on too long, and it continues to go on, past even the two-hour mark.

Rock of Ages also possibly suffers from a mistimed release. Big-screen musicals tend to be the purview of springtime or holiday releases (a la Chicago and Nine). Shankman’s previous hit, Hairspray, itself adapted from a hit Broadway musical, cleaned up at the box office in 2007, which undoubtedly led to him directing Rock of Ages. These days, musicals are an iffy business — with the accent on “business.” They’re simply not as common as they once were, and require careful handling.

Hysteria , which opens Friday, dramatizes the origins of that most important of inventions: the vibrator.

Of course, that’s not the principal thrust of the storyline — no pun intended — yet it is the end result of this bright, amusing comedy that is genteel and ribald in equal measure. It also happens to be based on fact, although this may not be the way things exactly transpired.

Hugh Dancy plays the young physician Mortimer Granville, whose progressive idealism hasn’t yet found favor in a Victorian medical establishment unwilling to yield to, or even consider, new ideas.

In a last-ditch effort to save his career, Mortimer takes a job with stuffy Dr. Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce, welcome as always), who specializes in treating women whose symptoms seem to begin and end with sexual repression. To the more enlightened viewer of the 21st century, this may seem laughable, but it wasn’t a laughing matter at the time. To combat this “epidemic,” women were sometimes hospitalized, committed to mental institutions, incarcerated(!) or even operated on.

Indeed, this is where the term “hysterectomy” was coined.

Mortimer is initially drawn to Dr. Dalrymple’s demure younger daughter Emily (Felicity Jones), yet is also intrigued by older daughter Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal, sporting a spot-on British accent), an outspoken suffragette whose passion and sass he sometimes finds infuriating, yet also irresistible. The ageless Rupert Everett gives the proceedings a lift every time he appears as Mortimer’s friend Edmund, an eccentric inventor who first develops the device that would eventually become the most popular sex toy in existence. (One of his suggestions for its name is “Jiggly Wiggly.”)

LOG ONTO — click on the “Flicks” section. Then go to “What’s Showing”’  Hysteria is not an erotic film, nor is it meant to be. It’s played lightly and for laughs (generally), while also conveying a sense of history and irony. Directed by Tanya Wexler (real-life niece of the noted filmmaker Haskell Wexler), Hysteria enlightens while it entertains, put across nicely by its talented and engaging cast.