Rainn Wilson has risen to fame by playing the uptight, uber-geeky Dwight Schrute on the American version of The Office. For his first headlining gig, Wilson attempts to leave behind the constipated world of the business office and show what it’s really like to rock. Unfortunately, what Wilson shows is there’s a lot more of Dwight Schrute to the actor than any trace of a rock star.
In The Rocker, Rainn Wilson plays Fish, a drummer who starts out the film as a member of the up-and-coming Vesuvius, but who is dropped as a condition of the band’s rise to stardom. Twenty years later, Fish is still so bitter about being dumped, his life has pretty much become a series of failures. When his nephew’s band, A.D.D., finds itself in need of a drummer, Fish is convinced to step in, getting the attention of a recording label after a video of Fish practicing his drumming naked gets a lot of notice on YouTube (because, sadly, people really do have nothing better to do than watch a naked, pudgy drummer on the internet). With A.D.D. on the rise, Fish finally gets to live the rock star life he’s dreamed of for two decades. Of course, with Fish twenty years older, all of his bandmates being teenagers, and the shadow of Vesuvius still hanging over him, that rocker life proves to be a bit different than Fish was expecting.
Watching The Rocker, I was quickly amazed at the comedic pedigree this movie has. In just the first couple of minutes you have Will Arnett playing the lead singer of Vesuvius, Aziz Ansari as one of Fish’s office co-workers, Jane Krakowski as Fish’s brief girlfriend, and Jane Lynch and Jeff Garlin as Fish’s sister and brother-in-law. How a movie with this many talented comedians could elicit absolutely no laughter from me throughout its story is a testament to how poorly the story is executed. A lot of the comedians are misused, including Wilson, who is as convincing as a rocker as I imagine Alice Cooper would be in a business suit on an office comedy; the character traits just aren’t there to play with. Wilson isn’t alone in that situation. Jason Sudeikis plays his band manager character the same way he played vice presidential candidate Joe Biden, which is an odd fit for this movie.
The biggest problem with the story is that it moves forward without much logic or reason. Fish, as a character, doesn’t really grow, he just goes with the flow. We’re supposed to believe he’s carrying around all this hurt twenty years after being dumped by his former band, but convincing him to join a new band doesn’t take all that much. Even though he really didn’t get much of a taste of stardom with Vesuvius, we’re supposed to believe he’s getting caught up in that world again, becoming the bad boy of the band. Those actions have no outstanding consequences either though. Basically Fish just wanders through the movie. We’re supposed to believe he has changed because the story tells us he does, but it’s never evident in his characterization or in the acting.
There have been lots of comparisons between The Rocker and School of Rock. Having seen both pictures, the comparisons are really unfair. Other than an adult rocking out with some younger musicians, there’s nothing to be shared between them. Comparing The Rocker with something like Wayne’s World, where an artist’s creation grows beyond them, thanks in part to a jerk-agent, would be a lot more fitting. Especially because both Wayne’s World and The Rocker resort to some silly antics for their laughter. The difference is, in Wayne’s World that silliness is intentional, and is usually playing on someone else’s initial creation in a parodical form. Here, it’s not clear whether the people behind The Rocker know just how silly their creation is at times.
The best example of what I’m talking about is in the movie’s slapstick approach to comedy. Slapstick comedy, when executed properly, can be quite funny. Here it’s not only poorly executed, with Wilson taking a hit from every possible object early on in the movie, to the point that you can pretty much see every smash and crunch before they come. Later we’re supposed to feel sympathetic for Fish as the rigors of being on tour are taking a physical toll on him. Slapstick isn’t about long-term consequences, so asking the audience to feel sympathy for Fish’s pain becomes the antithesis of the comedic form. Eliminating the slapstick approach would have made garnering sympathy for the character easier, but instead you’ve got a huge contradiction in form going on here.
Thankfully, The Rocker isn’t completely about Rainn Wilson, and when it moves away from him it actually finds a few strengths. Emma Stone, in particular, is a highlight of the film and the movie comes alive during those brief instances that it centers on her. Josh Gad is pretty painless as Fish’s nerdy nephew, although it’s hard to buy him as a high school senior here when he’s played adult characters elsewhere. Christina Applegate barely gets enough screen time to decide whether she’s an asset to the film. Obviously originally designed to be some sort of romantic interest for Fish, the movie steers away from that - a decision I’m thankful for. Asking me to believe a relationship between the two could form after we’ve already seen so much of Wilson’s pudgy form would be stretching suspension of disbelief too far.
The Rocker isn’t as terrible as I’d been led to believe, but it’s really not that good either. It’s a mediocre movie that goes through the motions of telling a story without any depth to it. The story moves forward without reason, the comedic form contradicts itself, and there are few laughs to be had despite an incredible comedic pedigree involved. If nothing else, The Rocker shows Wilson should stay focused on The Office, which has similar assets to The Rocker but creates laugh out loud moments on a weekly basis.
The Blu-ray transfer of The Rocker looks alright, but there isn’t any outstanding reason to pick up this movie in high definition. Other than the climactic concert scene, which looks really nice, the rest of the movie looks pretty generic and doesn’t really get any benefit from the higher resolutions. I had some serious issues with sound levels, not with the movie itself, but with the level of the menu music and the bonus features. Frequently bonus material would be considerably lower, requiring me to crank up the volume, which then was far too loud when the menu screen came back up.
This is one of the most frustrating menus I’ve encountered in some time. You have your basic options (play movie, scene selection, etc), but when you choose bonus features a small window pops up that only reveals one option at a time. The only exception to this is when you select something like deleted scenes, which has multiple options, so a submenu is revealed which also only reveals one thing at a time. What’s wrong with showing the user all of the bonus options at the same time? It’s not horrific to navigate like some menus, but it is quite annoying.
Despite only showing one option at a time, there is a bit of menu stuffing here. For instance, there is a gag reel, which isn’t anything special, largely made up of cast members bursting into laughter. Then, listed separately, there are “Matt Gags,” which are alternate and extended versions of an early dinner table sequence where Matt and his sister get into an argument, and “Vesuvius Gags,” which are alternate and extended versions of the band’s escape from Fish in their band early in the movie. A gag is a gag, right? So why have three separate entries? Both of the secondary, more specifically collected gag reels wore thin about halfway through their running time. They really aren’t different enough from what’s in the movie, and the repetitive nature of showing take after take just gets weary.
The deleted scenes are also a bit padded, with sixteen minutes of footage. The first half of the deleted scenes is exactly what you’d expect - material that didn’t make it into the movie. Then suddenly you find yourself watching alternate takes of the music video director going on a tirade, which really isn’t that different than the alternate takes presented in the separate “gag” sections, so why include this as a deleted scene? Finally, there is an alternate ending where Fish becomes the band’s manager and winds up with Christina Applegate’s character. It’s a nice ending, but the last minute and a half is an ariel shot of the band’s buss driving on the highway, which presumably would have had credits rolling over it. Almost ninety seconds of a van driving - this is good use of deleted material? Please.
There are quite a few featurettes that look at separate aspects of the movie, from the music to stories from the actors of “rock star” moments they’ve had (or theories on why actors all want to be rock stars). The best of these is focused on Pete Best, the Beatle’s first drummer who was removed right before their rise to fame who served as inspiration for this movie (and also appears very briefly on screen). My favorite of these featurettes is probably “Rainn Wilson: Office Rocker,” which acknowledges Wilson’s successful television show by having most of the cast attempting to harangue their way onto the show. The weakest: “Behind the Band: Vesuvius,” which plays like a two minute “Behind the Music” special on the fictitious band, but contradicts the movie by having Fish aware of their fake British presence before he meets back up with them toward the end of the movie. Consistency people!
There’s a slew of other material included as well. The low point is a series of podcasts titled “Book Talk with Rainn Wilson” that shows Wilson interviewing real rocker Slash, asking a series of inane and random questions. The stupidity behind the interviews is obviously intentional, but mix that with editing and graphic overlays that are designed to look amateurish but go beyond what most people outside of high school (and a lot of people in high school) would be reduced to creating. The highlight, and only legitimate laugh this entire disc got from me, would be the “Vesuvius Public Service Announcements,” which is mercifully short and has the Vesuvius actors making short pleas about goofy subjects, like mall cops not being a joke or banks being serious. There are also two commentary tracks (although watching the movie two more times seems more like a punishment than a reward), a A.D.D. music video, and finally a digital copy so you can download The Rocker onto your computer or iPod and watch it anywhere - because this is a movie that begs for that treatment, right?
There’s nothing special about The Rocker, either as a movie or as a Blu-ray release. It’s not as bad as you might expect, but when there’s really only one laugh to be had from the disc and all its contents, then this is clearly one release you can pass up.