A film review by Craig J. Koban

THE ROCKER  jjj

2008, PG-13, 102 mins.

Rainn Wilson: Robert "Fish" Fishman / Christina Applegate: Kim / Jeff Garlin: Stan / Josh Gad:  Matt / Teddy Geiger: Curtis / Emma Stone:  Amelia

Directed by Peter Cattaneo / Written by Maya Forbes and Wally Wolodarsky

THE ROCKER may feel like a simple-minded, youth friendly, late summer comedy, but consider the moral of its story:  

You are never too old for binge drinking, stage diving, flirting with underage chicks, trashing your way through hotels, and…whoops…I almost forgot…rockin’ your receding hairline out! 

In THE ROCKER the main character – an approaching middle-aged, go nowhere doofus/man-child that rediscovers his big hair band, rock n’ roll roots - is played Rainn Wilson, who many TV viewers will fondly recall from his popular stint on the US version of THE OFFICE (for purist out there, myself included, only the BBC Ricky Gervais OFFICE is required comedic viewing, but I digress).  Wilson is an interesting performer:  Firstly, he kind of looks…well…weird…but that is not a criticism, because he harnesses his indescribable peculiarity quite well (just look at his very brief, but hysterical, cameo as a convenience store clerk in last year’s note perfect JUNO, where he had the film’s best zinger when he approached the pregnant title teen character and told her that her pregnancy test “ain’t no etch-a-sketch. This is one doodle that can't be un-did, homeskillet.”  He has a way of deadpanning lines for just the right pathological effect, especially when it’s paired with that wide-eyed and goofily hypnotic stare he has.  

Wilson has decent comic chops, and he certainly has played in some equally decent supporting roles in the past in films of varying quality such as ALMOST FAMOUS, BAADASSSSS!, GALAXY QUEST, SAHARA, and most recently, and humorously, as Luke Wilson offbeat buddy in the underrated MY SUPER EX-GIRLFRIEND.  He has often been slavishly labeled as a Poor Man’s Jack Black, which I think is a bit unfair.  Despite the fact that he does harness some of Black’s most noteworthy slapstick physicality, he certainly is a more appealing screen presence in the way he does not shamelessly mug the camera as much as Black.  I also feel that Wilson is able to more effectively and convincingly bridge the gap between playing broad farcical laughs with genuine sentiment, the latter characteristic that is on full display in THE ROCKER. 

In the film he plays a real down of his luck schmuck named Robert “Fish” Fishman, who got a most heinous rude awakening from his bandmates back in the neon colored 80’s.  He was part of the band named Vesuvius, which played that brand of easy-going, pelvic thrusting, and flashy metal to obligatory, good vibe effect.  Just when it looks like the band is going to be signed to a record deal and hit the big time, disaster strikes: The band’s unscrupulous manager convinces the groups’ lead singer (played in a very small, but very funny, performance by Will Arnett) to royally eighty-six Fish out of Vesuvius because the record label does not like his look.  Fish is the drummer and “heart and soul” of the group, so when news of his untimely firing hits him, he does what any other normal musician would do when faced with mournful news: he chases his band members down the street and tries to stab them all with his drum sticks. 

Flash forward twenty years and Fish has secluded himself to a life of relative normalcy whereas Vesuvius has become one of the most popular bands in the world, securing Fish’s status as the new Pete Best.  He works at a call center, which all but makes him feel like a redundant and expendable nobody; his feelings of low self worth are made all the worse when a co-worker shows off his newest CD, the brand new Vesuvius album, and Fish gets so p-oed that he thrashes his co-worker right in the middle of a shift.  Well…he at least warned him not to play the CD, seeing as any point in a conversation where anybody says Vesuvius' name or plays their music sends him into a Pavlovian trance of anger and hostility. 

Fish gets fired and is forced to move into the dingy and smelly attic of his older sister.  Interestingly, his young nephew, Matt (Josh Gad) has a fledging teen band called ADD; he plays the key board while his two BFF’s, Amelia (SUPERBAD’s Emma Stone) and Curtis (Teddy Geiger) are the guitarist and soul-searching, sullen song writer/singer respectively.  ADD has a real dilemma when their drummer gets grounded by his mother (which is a real bummer) so Matt tries to appeal to his Uncle’s sense of lost pride by asking him if he will join the band to help them with their gig at the prom.  At first, Fish refuses, but then when his nephew pleads with him on levels he can understand, he accepts by stating, “You wanna be in a band to score with chicks.  I can respect that.” 

Fish joins the band and their first gig at the prom starts off winningly, but when the fever of being back on stage gets to him he burst out of control and bangs his drums with maniacal glee, utterly ruing the prom king and queen’s slow dance.  ADD’s lead singer wants him out of the band.  However, Fish issues the band a challenge to reclaim his mantle as their drummer: If he finds them their next gig, they should let him back in.  Well, he does land the group a gig, but fate steps in when a jam session goes horribly wrong.  Thinking that his web cam on a computer is a microphone, Fish accidentally lets footage of him drumming in the nude (don't ask) get leaked on You Tube by Matt’s bratty little sister.  Fortunately for the group, Fish’s birthday suit session becomes an overnight sensation, which unexpectedly launches the group into the stratosphere.  Within no time, they get a manager and go on the road for a tour, but some serious set backs (including an inevitable showdown between Fish and his former friends in Vesuvius) cause some riffs in the rags-to-riches band. 

THE ROCKER in no way reinvents the wheel for this type of material.  On a negative, the plot is inordinately predictable and monotonous, going from one methodically mechanical beat to another.  Obviously, we just know that the angst ridden Curtis will have conflicts with the aging rocker in Fish, notwithstanding that we are thrown in – for good measure – Curtis’ smoking hot milf of a mother, played by Christina Applegate, as a potential love interest for Fish.  Despite the fact that the camera loves her and she displays good comic timing, Applegate is an erroneous and needless element here.   There is also a fairly routine battle of wills between the band members as to whose path of guidance they should follow.  This is not assisted by the conniving presence of their new and incredibly sleazy manager, played in a fairly side-splitting supporting performance by SNL’s Jason Sudeikis.  His attempts to sabotage Fish in the group are pretty routine and paint-by-numbers, but some of his one-liners and jabs have a creepily hysterical tone.  At one point, after the group records a song in the studio, he cries, “John Lennon just turned over in his grave from the huge boner you just gave him.”  His attempts at wooing Curtis’ mom are also inanely funny, when he fails at complimenting her when he says to her, “You’re Curtis’ mom?  Man, I wish I could be in you for nine months.” 

Yet, despite the film’s preordained story construction, going from point A to B with stunning inevitability, THE ROCKER remains a fairly lightweight, pleasurable, and likeable romp of a bunch of misunderstood misfits trying to make something of themselves via an aging hipster that too has something to prove.  As a homage to 80’s metal bands in all of their schlocky excesses, THE ROCKER finds the right pulse with the material, not to mention that it displays considerable smarts with its sharp dialogue, which intuitively knows when and where to take jabs at the music industry (one line that involves the terms elevator music and Celine Dion is spot on accurate).  There will be some sense of déjŕ vu for viewers familiar with SCHOOL OF ROCK, SPINAL TAP! and maybe just a hint of THE PARTRIDGE FAMILY for good measure, but THE ROCKER always has its heart in the right place and generates some respectable laughs in the midst of all of its obviousness.  The film is a good bit of satisfying, PG inspired counter programming to the R-rated, debauchery heavy comedies that were TROPIC THUNDER and PINEAPPLE EXPRESS.  This is a film that is age appropriate for young ones, but one that will still not be dull and tedious for adults. 

The performances too have an above average glow to them, especially for the material.  I especially like Josh Gad (whose portly facade will generate some minor comparisons to Jonah Hill) is able to underplay lines to nearly a whisper to get larger laughs out of them (when a uber hot babe asks him to sign her cleavage, he sheepishly stares at her at states, “You are…nicely proportioned” and a later scene - when a buff and blond teen drummer is sent in to replace Fish by their manager, gets a huge chuckle:  "Look at him," Gad states, "It looks like Abercrombie makes people!").  Teddy Grieger has a nice turn as ADD’s singer, and Emma Stone has a good sense of latent sarcasm in her delivery.  Will Arnett - the pride of Toronto, Ontario and who just may be the funniest man alive that has not been given a memorable movie to harness his talents - is deeply hilarious as the deeply narcissistic singer of Vesuvius, especially when he shows off the groups’ new English accents to Fish and company, to which Fish properly asks, “Why do you now have accents?”   

And then there’s Rainn Wilson, and despite the fact that his performance does not always gel with consistency here (at times he plays an over-the-top clown alongside a down-to-earth and earnest everyman), his work is affectionate, eager, and aims to please, which is what we expect in these types of films.  I am not entirely sure if he will ever be headlining material in comedies (I think his true calling card will be quirky supporting rolls), but his tenacity and perseverance shows.  THE ROCKER benefits from his enthusiasm for the material, and even if the script is a bit of a letdown (penned by Maya Forbes and Wallace Wolodarsky, who respectively have written TV classics like THE LARRY SANDERS SHOW and THE SIMPSONS), the performers hit the right collective beat, and director Peter Cattaneo (who just may be the most forgettable Best Director nominee ever; he was up for Oscar Gold way back in late 90’s with his sleeper hit THE FULL MONTY) infuses the proceedings with enough audience pleasing pep and  awkward charm alongside its agreeable cast and surprisingly catchy tunes.  THE ROCKER is mild, unassuming, and a whole-heartedly good-natured comedy with its rock n’ roll will never die, anti-establishment attitude.  And for that…it’s also refreshingly entertaining. 

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