The Rocker (2008)

As he says in The Rocker,
"too loud," is not in Rainn Wilson's vocabulary.


What can I say about Rainn Wilson?

Aside from believing he’s phenomenally underrated as the sycophantic Dwight Schrute to Steve Carell’s Michael Scott on NBC’s award-winning The Office, I’ve never really found him that promising as an actor. He seems to be one of those comedians who does one thing really well and then milks it for all its worth… and then some.

After bombing in his hosting duty at this year’s Independent Spirit Awards when no less than Dustin Hoffman ad-libbed the ceremony’s funniest line (which I won’t even begin to repeat here but involved making love to Javier Bardem), Wilson seemed to have suffered the fate of a majority of TV stars in being more or less pigeonholed to his alter ego Dwight Schrute. And this was all the more evident during his squirm-inducing, awfully delivered “Fertile Myrtle,” “That ain’t no etch-a-sketch” brief cameo opposite the Oscar nominated Ellen Page in last year’s critical darling, Juno. For proof replay his performance in a scene that — despite my adoration for the film and Diablo Cody’s writing — I still feel would’ve been best left on the cutting room floor.

So needless to say, when I first saw the trailer for The Rocker, I braced myself for the worst in what looked like would ultimately be a School of Rock rehash, minus Jack Black. But having been a fan of two of British director Peter Cattaneo’s previous films — The Full Monty and Lucky Break -- I wanted to give the movie the benefit of the doubt.

Of course, I was nearly forced into merriment at a screening complete with The Rocker groupies who were coming back for their fifth, sixth, and even seventh screening of the film. If movie characters lived in an alternate universe, no doubt Kate Hudson’s Almost Famous self-described “Band-Aid,” Penny Lane would be proud. In fact, it’s ironic that it called to mind the aforementioned films since as a word-of-mouth campaign I hadn’t seen one this effective since the likes of Juno or School of Rock. And while I don’t think I’ll be coming back tri-weekly and will be able to hold off until DVD for another viewing, sure enough, when the film started, I quickly found myself in hysterics. Additionally, I realized that, while indeed most will compare the film to School of Rock and Wilson to Black, it’s been quite awhile since Jack Black genuinely made me laugh. In fact, the last time could very well have been in School of Rock.

Therefore, I was pleasantly surprised to forgo the advice of “accept no substitutes,” and let Wilson and not Black rock the audience for 102 minutes. Obviously, it helps if one is old enough to remember the '80s as we open via a pitch-perfect flashback in Cleveland, 1986 as Wilson’s overly enthusiastic and extremely sweaty drummer Robert “Fish” Fishman and his hair metal band Vesuvius (led by no less than Arrested Development’s Will Arnett as the front-man) rock their own on-screen audience. On the cusp of a record deal with a major label, Vesuvius discovers that fame comes with a price — namely nepotism — when the one thing standing in their path is Fish, as he’s ousted by disloyal band-mates and an industry man’s nephew is lined up to step in as their new drummer.

In one of several overly-broad sequences that begin with refreshingly wild comedic abandon until becoming the cinematic equivalent of a run-on sentence (as it crosses the line into the just plain chaotic and overly ridiculous), pratfall prone Fish chases down his band’s van. Running with the speed of Robert Patrick in Terminator 2 and attacking the vehicle with his drumsticks, Wilson's Fish constantly battles like a zombie that refuses to stay dead in a horror movie. Similar to Fish’s admission that “too loud is not in my vocabulary,” Wilson never lets a moment go by without chewing every piece of scenery in sight a la Jack Black and Will Ferrell. And while he does indeed garner some laughs, as it continues — quite similar to the way it plays out on The Office — it’s The Rocker’s minor Dwight Schrute-like characters who manage to earn the longest laughs with ironically the shortest amounts of screen time.

The film catches up with Fish twenty years later, in an all too identifiable dead-end-job as a phone-based customer service representative. But after a coworker forces him to listen to the latest smash success album by Vesuvius, Fish snaps, a fight ensues, and a few scenes later he’s out both a job and a relationship when his long-suffering girlfriend Jane Krakowski evicts him from her apartment.

Now stuck sleeping on an inflatable air mattress bed in the attic of his sister Lisa (Jane Lynch) and her husband Stan (Jeff Garlin), Fish gets an unlikely second chance at rock success when his nerdy, awkward M.I.T.-bound nephew Matt (Josh Gad) recruits his reluctant uncle to play in his band, A.D.D.

Hoping to stand for Attention Deficit Disorder instead of “add,” Fish soon fills out the small ensemble consisting of keyboardist Matt along with his post-modern, unsmiling, no-nonsense bassist Amelia (Emma Stone) and the gorgeous but melancholic lead singer Curtis (musician Teddy Geiger). Although Curtis’ perpetual abandonment issues over his deadbeat father comprise most of the depressing lyrics, Fish begins to rock their songs metal-style. The change is made first to their horror but then after they’re boosted to fame via an unflattering “naked drummer” YouTube video starring Fish, soon A.D.D. becomes an overnight sensation.

While the film makes Fish’s buffoon-like behavior the impetus for their success, there’s no denying the undeniable talent of real-life musician Geiger, whose music in the film is so impressive, it’ll immediately send you chasing down the soundtrack.

And while the music does indeed get your toes tapping and there is a similar “car test” scene to hear a demo while you drive, the film never mistakes itself for last year’s amazing art house ode to musical love, Once, always remembering its initial goal is to first and foremost make audiences laugh.

And like the ensemble quality of The Office, The Rocker’s ensemble makes the film a success with great, subtle, flirtatious support by Christina Applegate as Curtis’s hot mom (in a role that reminded me of her excellent turn opposite Ferrell in Anchorman), the under-utilized Will Arnett, Curb Your Enthusiasm’s Jeff Garlin, and Christopher Guest frequent cast member Jane Lynch, all of whom are a joy to comedy fans.

Yet, I was completely bowled over by the hilariously hyper and obnoxious turn by Jason Sudeikis playing the ultimate hype-monger in the form of the endlessly quotable, politically incorrect, and sleazy, two-faced sycophantic industry man, David Marshall. After just a few ridiculously off-the-wall lines penned by husband and wife screenwriting team Maya Forbes (The Larry Sanders Show) and Wallace Wolodarsky (The Simpsons), I found myself looking forward to the next appallingly hilarious thing he would say and as engrossed by his brief screen time just as much as I was during last week’s Tropic Thunder where Tom Cruise played a similarly hammy exec as well.

Hmm… something tells me we’ll be getting a new Will Ferrell styled Frat Pack buddy comedy about industry executives in the near future. And if Ferrell’s busy, possibly they could employ Rainn Wilson and Jack Black. Since, goodness knows that while they definitely are capable of making us laugh, both could use the benefit of superior writing to make them the genuine stars of their own films. However, until then, there are plenty of backstage antics in this film to keep you entertained. So ultimately, to misquote AC/DC, to “those about to rock” I “salute you.”