Rainn Wilson as Robert ‘Fish’ Fishman
Christina Applegate as Kim
Teddy Geiger as Curtis
Josh Gad as Matt Gadman
Emma Stone as Amelia
Jeff Garlin as Stan
Jane Lynch as Lisa
Jason Sudeikis as David Marshall
Will Arnett as Lex
Howard Hesseman as Gator
Fred Armisen as Kerr
Bradley Cooper as Trash
Lonny Ross as Sticks
Jon Glaser as Billy
Jane Krakowski as Carol
Directed by Peter Cattaneo
“The Rocker’s” strength as a comedy lies in its great cast, solid writing, some poppy head-bopping tunes as well as a story full of warmth and laughs that often makes up for its sometimes predictable high concept plot.
Back in the ’80s, Robert “Fish” Fishman (Rainn Wilson) was the drummer for Cleveland hair metal band Vesuvius, who unceremoniously boots him out of the band when they finally get their break to the big time. 20 years later, Fish is still bitter over the split and when he loses his job, he’s forced to move in with his sister (Jane Lynch) whose son Matt (Josh Gad) tries to convince his irresponsible uncle to sit in on drums with his band A.D.D. One thing leads to another and soon Fish is back on road with the young band including angst-ridden singer Curtis (Teddy Geiger) and bassist Amelia (Emma Stone).
There’ve only been a handful of movies that have really captured the rock ‘n’ roll experience, the most famous ones being “This is Spinal Tap” and Cameron Crowe’s “Almost Famous”; even Mark Wahlberg’s “Rock Star,” which is rarely looked upon favorably, does get a lot of things right. This starring vehicle for Rainn Wilson from “The Office” harks back more to Jack Black’s “School of Rock,” following a similar path, but you can tell that a lot of thought, time and research was put into getting things right, not only in making fun of the silliness inherent in the music business but also paying loving tribute to the magic of being in your first band and having the chance to live your dreams.
Directed by Peter Cattaneo of “The Full Monty” with a solid gag-filled script by Maya Forbes and Wally Woldarsky, who wrote the barely seen “Seeing Other People,” the movie starts in 1988 Cleveland where the hair metal band Vesuvius are rocking on stage with their enthusiastic drummer “Fish” (Wilson). After the gig, they’re told by their manager they’ve been offered a lucrative record deal but they have to allow the record exec’s nephew to replace Fish as the band’s drummer. 20 years after being kicked out of his band, Fish still hasn’t recovered, attacking his office-mate when he starts jamming to the band’s new record, and getting kicked out of the apartment he shares with his girlfriend when she’s had enough. Moving in with his sister, Rob tries to get his life back on track when his nephew Matt (Josh Gad) asks him to sit in with his band A.D.D., and soon the band is successful and Rob finds himself getting a chance to live the rock dreams he was denied 20 years earlier.
As silly as the concept of a middle-aged has-been drummer finding success with a band of teenagers might sound, the way Rainn Wilson so fully throws himself into the role really sells it, since he never turns off from the second we’re introduced to his amusing character. Cut from the same know-it-all cloth as Wilson’s “Office” character Dwight Shrute put into the body of a bungling manchild, Rob Fishman could have easily been a vehicle for Will Ferrell, but Wilson gives it his own spin, throwing funny faces while flailing away at his drum kit that makes it hard not to laugh.
Far too often the movie resorts to physical comedy, going the easy route to get laughs with pratfalls and people getting hit in the head, which seems wholly unnecessary because the writing and the comic timing of the cast are both good. There are also a few too many random bits which serve very little purpose to the story, but once the movie gets past them, there’s a touching story about Rob’s attempt to rekindle his dreams of rock ‘n’ roll while mentoring this band of young newbies, played by a young cast who do a fine job keeping up with Wilson. Emma Stone spends most of the movie acting outraged and disgusted at Rob’s behavior, but she’s also incredibly sexy and credible when on stage performing, while the band’s singer and songwriter Curtis, played by real-life singer/songwriter Teddy Geiger, broods about his absent father. Bearing a passing resemblance to Jonah Hill without being nearly as spontaneous at delivering jokes, Josh Gad’s heavy-set Matt is the weak link of the foursome, though he does add to the mix.
The movie could easily stand on merits of the rapport between these four characters, but there are plenty of others around them to keep things fun and interesting. It’s great seeing Christina Applegate as Curtis’ deeply cynical mother who goes on the road with the band to keep Fish out of trouble. Likewise, Jane Lynch and Jeff Garner both have some good scenes as Rob’s sister and brother-in-law, the latter living his own rock star dreams vicariously through the success of his son’s band. The nicest surprise though is who they got to play the band’s tour bus driver, someone who we haven’t seen nearly enough in recent years.
Where the film excels is in its spot-on jabs at the music industry, whether it’s the pushy music video director making his “art” or Jason Sudeikis’ hilarious A&R guy who is constantly blurting out catch phrases and one-liners to come across as cool. He’s clearly the funniest character in a movie full of them, delivering most of the lines that will be remembered and repeated, and often stealing the show from the others. The movie also is filled with rock references, some more obvious like spoofs of “Hammer of the Gods” but some quite obscure and clever, like Fish’s homage to Keith Moon, obviously a big influence on his theatric playing style.
If you know anything about the music business, some aspects of the plot won’t be particularly believable, like when Fish’s naked drumming winds up on YouTube getting the band enough attention to send them on tour. The movie starts to veer into the ludicrous when A.D.D. are asked to open for Fish’s old band Vesuvius as they’re inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall Fame five years earlier than they should be allowed to (oops) but it leads to one of the movie’s funnier scenes, as Wilson finally confronts his old bandmates. For the most part, the movie’s last half hour is too convoluted as it tries to introduce some conflict into the band’s success as well as a bit of romance, but it ultimately leads to a predictable and obvious ending that veers far too close to “School of Rock.”
What helps set the movie apart from other rock comedies are the catchy songs written for Teddy Geiger and A.D.D. to perform by composer Chad Fischer (“Garden State”). Some of the lyrics might seem hokey and suitably teen angst-ridden, but they’re the kind of punky power pop tunes that’ll have you tapping your foot throughout the movie and stuck in your head once it’s over. It’s so rare for a rock movie–besides outright musicals like John Cameron Mitchell’s “Hedwig and the Angry Inch”–to effectively integrate music into the story. “The Rocker’s” soundtrack is on par with anything that can currently be heard on the radio, and ultimately, it’s one of many things that will win you over.
The Bottom Line:
The makers of “The Rocker” really nail the rock ‘n’ roll experience especially the joys of your first band with a very funny movie that has Rainn Wilson doing what he does best, but offers plenty of equally funny moments for the rest of the cast. It’s tamer and slightly less irreverent than some of the other movies in theaters but that just makes the innocence of the humor and storytelling that much more refreshing.