Rock of Ages: Tom Cruise goes back in time again (and again)

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Simon Abrams

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At this point in his career, it's really impossible to tell who Tom Cruise thinks he is.

Cruise's decision to follow up Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, his most recent cinematic proof of life, by taking on the role of a has-been hair-metal rocker named Stacee Jaxx is an indication, if nothing else, that he's not overly concerned with extending himself.

Cruise is a naturally charming star, but he is also one who is brittle and self-conscious. He has never seemed more so than he does in the context of Rock of Ages, the new film adaptation of Chris D'Arienzo's proudly dimwitted Broadway musical.

Jaxx is supposed to be a creature of some version of L.A. in the '80s, where metal is on the outs thanks to Patricia Whitmore (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a Barbara Bush-type moral crusader who wants to end Jaxx's career and prevent corruption of America's youth. Jaxx must survive in order for rock to keep on keeping on.

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But Jaxx has seen better days. In a scene that might explain why Cruise chose to play Jaxx, the aging "rock God" is told by Beth (Erica Frene), an ambitious young reporter, what's wrong with him. He's become withdrawn from his public and his work lacks the power it once had. Jaxx is like a composite sign of the times, from the fact that he has a monkey, just like Michael Jackson, to the way that he rocks his mic with the same mannerisms as Steve Tyler while covering an Aerosmith song, and he's worn out on '80s excesses. Jaxx, perhaps a little like Cruise, is still famous, but feels he needs a comeback to prove his vitality.

He seduces Beth, in a sequence that would make Showgirls screenwriter Joe Eszterhas blanch, winning her over by singing Bon Jovi's "Wanted Dead or Alive." Then they make love while singing Foreigner's "I Want to Know What Love Is," she growling with his zipper in her teeth and he serenading her rear, atop an inactive air hockey table.

That's about as sophisticated a plot point as there is in this film, which is really more of a nostalgia-soaked musical spectacle than a story. In a separate episode, Dennis (Alec Baldwin) and Lonny (Russell Brand), the owner and mascot of the famous but ailing Bourbon Club, declare their love for each other while singing REO Speedwagon's "Can't Fight This Feeling." And in another, Drew (Diego Boneta) and Sherrie (Julianne Hough), two generically talented but naive lovers, hit rock bottom by respectively joining a New Kids on the Block-style boy band and becoming an pole dancer.

Once you accept that this is all the movie actually is, then this biggest problem may be the premise that "Don't Stop Believing" is some hallmark of a bygone American rock renaissance. After all, the tension in the movie comes from the idea that Patricia, the moralist, would essentially be bringing about the death of popular music by depriving America of its hair metal.

Patricia is, perhaps predictably, a former groupie. Jaxx humiliates her when he feels her breasts and says that they haven't aged at all. Jaxx has also, by this point in the film, felt up Sherrie and told her that her "heart" was especially "perky." I think we're supposed to treat Jaxx as a joke when he does things like this, even when he's just risibly stupid and misogynistic.

All of this ultimately reflects on Cruise and his performance as an alternate-reality version of himself. Never mind the fact that the guy doesn't really have the lung capacity or genuine swagger to be a Steven Tyler type. What's really wrong here is that Cruise is, again, playing a smirking caricature of himself. Jaxx is confronted with a creative crisis, but he doesn't have to change his ways to solve his problems. He just keeps on trying to indulge himself, and succeeding.