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At nearly every moment of The Rocker, a comedy about a hair-metal drummer who got kicked out of his band about a minute before they made it big, you’ll be reminded of something else. Spinal Tap. The Darkness. School of Rock. Jack Black. Musical types, obviously, will also recognize themselves, feeling Robert “Fish” Fishman’s pain and desire to rock. Yet anyone who’s had any ambition beyond sitting in a cubicle will warm to his story, too, particularly during a scene in which he’s interviewing to become an office drone and explaining that the gap in his résumé reflects his failed attempt at a dream. “And now I’m ready to work here until I die,” Fish says.
Hitting you in the goals is just one way The Rocker rises above its broad-strokes redundancy; the people at its wheel are another. It’s directed by The Full Monty’s Peter Cattaneo—who accessorizes more heavily with slapstick but still makes most of it sublime—and scripted by Wally Wolodarsky and Maya Forbes, former writers for The Simpsons and The Larry Sanders Show, respectively. Of course, there’s also Fish himself: Rainn Wilson, whose resemblance to Black as he mugs and sweats and spills out of his clothes is initially hard to get past. But Wilson soon settles into his own groove, both separating his character from Dewey Finn and, more crucial, keeping Dwight Schrute confined to The Office.
The Rocker’s opening shows Vesuvius, Fish’s former band, in its heyday: 1986. Combine that year with Vesuvius’ play-metal repertoire, and you’ve got a slow-moving target. Will Arnett, Fred Armisen, and Ed Helms help supply the musical cheese; the group’s manager has a cell phone the size of a Merlin game. Vesuvius is offered a record deal, but only if they replace Fish with someone more marketable. They crow about loyalty until the true carrot is dangled: The band would also go on tour with Whitesnake. So, Fish is history, though he gives pretty impressive chase as the other members hightail it in their crappy van; he sprints like Superman to catch the vehicle, piercing the van’s roof with his drumsticks, and even re-animates, zombielike, after they run him over.
Fast-forward 20 years, and Fish is a telemarketer who’s about to get fired for going batshit on a fellow employee. (The new Vesuvius record is out, and dude can’t stop talking about it.) Fish takes the bus home to his girlfriend (Jane Krakowski), who doesn’t get far into a we-need-to-talk speech before he exclaims, “I break up with you!” Now homeless and unemployed, Fish moves in with his hyperresponsible sister, Lisa (Jane Lynch) and her more sympathetic/arrested husband, Stan (Jeff Garlin). Lisa and Stan’s teenage son, Matt (Josh Gad), is in a band called A.D.D. And though Fish has vowed never to play music again, when A.D.D.’s drummer quits the group right before prom, well, Fish needs only to hear a few seconds of a drum machine to start unpacking the spandex. (When someone protests that lots of bands use computerized beats, Fish responds, “Lots of elevators play Celine Dion—that don’t make it right.”)
Fish’s prom debut with Matt, guitarist Amelia (Superbad’s Emma Stone), and Jonas-like lead singer Curtis (real soft-rocker Teddy Geiger) is first triumphant but ultimately terrible as he turns “In Your Eyes” into a frenzied-tempo monstrosity. Luckily, there’s YouTube: When A.D.D. decides to give Fish another chance but are forbidden from practicing together, Matt rigs Webcams in each of their homes. Not familiar with the technology, Fish thinks it’s merely a mic and proceeds to literally rock out with his cock out. Screw treadmills; A.D.D. has the “Naked Drummer,” and it’s viral gold.
The Rocker has its share of the expected late-summer-comedy pitfalls: gross humor, knocks to the head, paint-by-numbers conflict, resolution, and romance, and, worst of all, a few dead spots when the main joke of a 40-year-old partying with a bunch of teens gets old. Its 102 minutes feels a little long—and the music, which is pretty generic, is partly to blame. But the film gets an emotional boost from its blue-collar milieu (it’s set and partially shot in Cleveland) that italicizes the script’s get-outta-Dodge feel. Stone, Geiger, and Gad are great straightmen to Wilson’s cartoon character; each of them are likable and inherently relatable as they deal with their individual issues, mostly involving self-doubt. (As for the puppy-eyed Geiger, well, he’s got a record deal for a reason.)
What really makes The Rocker work, though, is that its tone has as wide an appeal as its follow-your-dream message: When the humor doesn’t involve sweaty armpits or vomit, it’s alternately dry, silly, and profane—Christina Applegate, as Curtis’ hot mom, gets some good one-liners, as does Saturday Night Live’s Jason Sudeikis as A.D.D.’s odd manager. It’s a mixed bag that’s appropriate for older kids but still works for grown-ups, and it will certainly serve as a nice antidote to viewers maxed out on Apatow blue.