Just when you thought you were done with the ‘80s, they’re back, courtesy of two new music-laden, star-driven vehicles, Rock of Ages and the latest Adam Sandler chuckle-fest, That’s My Boy. There is a good deal of amusement/curiosity value to be found in both as they resuscitate (some might say regurgitate) ‘80s pop culture in the service of musical mashups and predictable plotlines.
Of the two, Rock of Ages is much more entertaining, a jukebox musical adaptation of the Broadway hit, complete with changes designed to send your spirits soaring—or so the filmmakers hope. The plot is fairly simple: in 1987, young showbiz hopeful Sherrie (an appealing Julianne Hough) comes to NY, is befriended by equally young barback/ aspiring rocker Drew (Diego Boneta, more than a little callow), and all wind up at the Bourbon, a rock club threatened with closure-either by irate protesters or Uncle Sam (as club owner Dennis, played wig and all by Alec Baldwin says, “Taxes, they’re so un-rock and roll”). The one hope—it seems for everyone-is an appearance by dissolute, dissipated rock icon Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise, playing Tom Cruise impersonating a debauched rocker), only he’s currently at odds with himself about his career, a conflict brought home by his penetrating encounter with a very attractive journalist (played by a sizzling Malin Ackerman). Did I forget to mention Paul Giamatti as Jaxx’s slimy manager, Catherine Zeta-Jones as the lead protester with an all-too-predictable secret, and Russell Brand as the club—and Dennis’-devoted manager? Whether or not you enjoy this probably depends on how you feel about ‘80s rock anthems (there are a number of them prominently featured), and the prospect of seeing, among others, pony-tailed stars like Cruise, Baldwin, and Giamatti strut their stuff. If you hated ‘80s rock, this movie will not lead you to reexamine your views, but if you maintain a fondness for the era or the music, then you may have some fun–as long as you don’t expect too much. Some of the better numbers involve Catherine Zeta-Jones leading her outraged women in “Hit me With Your Best Shot,” a “Shadows of the Night”/”Harden My heart” mashup courtesy of Julianne Hough and Mary J. Blige, and a close encounter between Cruise and Ackerman on “I Want to Know Love is.” And then there are numbers like Alec Baldwin and Russell Brand’s “Can’t Fight the Feeling,” about which…I think an anguished Kirk Douglas said it best in Detective Story when, upon learning of certain actions of his wife, he wishes that his brain could be removed and put under a faucet “to wash away all the dirty pictures they put there.”
That faucet could also be put to good use with Adam Sandler’s That’s my Boy (I know he’s not the director, but…come on). After an unfunny, unappetizing prologue set in 1984, involving young (around 13 year-old) Donnie Berger and his comely teacher’s sexual encounters, subsequent exposure in front of the whole school (much to the consternation of women and the cheering of fellow students), and the lingering scarlet letter of the teacher’s pregnancy and imprisonment (and lifelong Donny dedication), we leap forward to 2012. Donny has been a celebrity (an unlikely development, but there you have it) who has gone through his money and celebrity (that’s more like it) and is now a decidedly uncouth slacker who has lost contact with his kid—and needs to come up with $43,000 in back taxes to stay out of the slammer. His “kid,” as Donny soon discovers, is a successful businessman (Adam Samberg) who has changed his name (from Han Solo Berger to Todd Petersen) and is about to plunge into a high-profile marriage with a wealthy young woman (Leighton Messter). Donny barges into his son’s life (as Todd’s best friend), ingratiates himself with Todd’s prospective in-laws and business partners (including a game, amusing Tony Orlando), takes over the bachelor party, fantasizes about Grandma (not his, played by ‘30s starlet Peggy Stewart), all the while scheming to maneuver Todd into a surprise, televised jailhouse reunion with Mom (Susan Sarandon) in order to get money to pay the taxman (the not-so hidden message in both movies: don’t screw with Uncle Sam).You know where this is heading: Donny and Todd slowly begin to bond; Donny discovers something he shouldn’t; Donny gets a last-minute shot at redemption. The thing is, much of this is either unfunny (or it wasn’t to me; there were a few in the theater who were overcome by the power that is Sandler) or overly reliant on tasteless humor that seeks to out-Farrelly the Farrelly Brothers. You know there are problems when ‘80s celebs Vanilla Ice, Todd Bridges, and Tony Orlando (and James Caan) get more laughs than the star. And it’s not like Sandler is giving up entirely—yes, he’s put on the high, yet gravel-like voice (last seen in Little Nicky), but he communicates enough of Donny’s likable obtuseness, as well as some of the character’s sense of regret. It’s just that the laughs are lacking, and the entire venture feels forced. For Sandler fans, maybe some real laughs will come with Grown Ups 2….