Three parts School of Rock (minus the school), one part Almost Famous, The Rocker is an genial film about a rock ‘n’ roll fantasy come true, without any underlying messages about the value of music that pervaded the above-mentioned movies. Don’t be fooled: Despite its title, The Rocker isn’t really about rock ‘n’ roll. It’s more about middle-aged wish fulfillment whimsy set against a background of third generation Dashboard Confessional teenage pop-rock angst imagined by middle aged screenwriters who’ve watched way too much TRL. Though it has a few funny moments, like a three car garage band record, The Rocker will probably appeal only to young listeners who haven’t yet discovered that hair metal isn’t cool.
The titular Rocker is Robert “Fish” Fishman (Rainn Wilson), an immature 40 year old who’s been nursing a chip on his shoulder since he was kicked out of Vesuvius, the popular hair metal band he drummed for in the 80’s. A mixture of Poison and Motley Crüe, with a very funny Will Arnett as shaggy haired lead singer, Vesuvius have somehow managed to remain huge despite dressing in cheetah print spandex pants with matching coats and sounding like Led Zeppelin without balls (perhaps in the world of The Rocker, there never was a Nirvana). Fish loses yet another crap job and moves into his sister’s house where he discovers that his oft-neglected nephew Matt (Josh Gad) is playing in a band. Called A.D.D., the other members include emo front man Curtis (Terry Geiger) and cutie patootie Amelia (Emma Stone) (just guess what instrument she plays).
Of course A.D.D.’s drummer is conveniently removed from the band (in a genuinely comedic way) very soon into the film, giving Fish the perfect opportunity to slide onto the drummer’s stool. He promises to book A.D.D. a real show and delivers, convincing dopey eyed Curtis to let him stay in the band after a disastrous version of “In Your Eyes” ruins their prom night gig. A.D.D. shoots to fame when the band’s online practice session is uploaded onto YouTube, birthing the phenomenon known as “The Naked Drummer” (I wonder who that might be). Soon a smarmy music agent has shown up to send the band on a Midwest tour and Fish is once again on the road to success, this time riding the coattails of a bunch of post-punk kiddy poppers.
There’s not one moment in the film that’s unpredictable or unexpected, even though several obstacles are thrown in A.D.D.’s way to the top. Rainn Wilson abounds with charm and it’s not hard to root for him, even when the Dwight Schrute shtick is laid on a bit too thick. The fatherly relationship between Fish and Curtis is touching, though a romantic connection between Christina Applegate as Curtis’ mom and Fish is sadly underutilized. Many scenes in the film are very funny, such as one involving Demitri Martin as a committed music video director, but they are supported by such flimsy narrative tissue that they seem depressingly far and few between. Several times in the film interesting story threads are proposed, such as Applegate’s revelation that she used to be in an all girl punk band, then abandoned without reason. We are left thinking that we’d much rather see Applegate make a comeback than Fish.
In a way, The Rocker seems like a vehicle for musical wunderkind Teddy Geiger, who is apparently big with the kids. Though he has the best hair ever, Geiger can’t really act, a bad thing for a character that is supposed to be plumbing the depths of abandonment angst. Peter Cattaneo (The Full Monty) brings a light touch to the material but The Rocker is clearly indebted to the blueprint laid out by Almost Famous (or even That Thing You Do!, if you’re unkind) and pales in comparison to that masterful film. Relying mostly on sentiment to fill the gaps, The Rocker takes a Keith Moon approach to narrative: big start, big finish, middle doesn’t matter. It really wouldn’t matter if the film brought the rock, but, alas, the unfocused, underdeveloped Rocker doesn’t.