While Rainn Wilson handles cubicle work with aplomb on TV’s “The Office,” he’s also right at home onstage in “The Rocker,” playing a heavy-metal burnout who gets a second shot at stardom — never mind that success comes 20 years too late, drumming at his nephew’s high school prom. It’s the kind of role ready-made for Jack Black (had “School of Rock” not happened), and Wilson makes the most of it in this well-crafted, feel-good satire. With the right word of mouth, Fox could have a modest hit with the Aug. 20 release.
For those who loved “The Full Monty,” “The Rocker” also marks a return to form for director Peter Cattaneo, tapping into the same winsome, risk-everything spirit that defined the 1997 hit. Working with “Seeing Other People” scribes Maya Forbes and Wallace Wolodarsky, Cattaneo puts character first: Wilson’s Robert Fishman, or “Fish” to his friends, may be an outrageous fortysomething man-child, but he’s not a character you grow tired of by the second act.
Two decades after his heavy-metal bandmates sold him out for a record contract, the former drummer still prickles at the very mention of his band Vesuvius. The other members are on the brink of being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, while he’s stuck answering phones at a dead-end desk job with nothing more than his ponytail and sideburns left to suggest his more flamboyant stage presence.
Fired from work and forced to move back in with his sister (Jane Lynch) and their family, Fish reluctantly agrees to join the band of her awkward teen son (Josh Gad) and his outcast friends (emo-eyed Teddy Geiger and “Superbad’s” Emma Stone), who perform mopey pop ballads under the name ADD. No sooner is Fish back at the kit than he’s stealing the show, turning a slow-dance rendition of Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” into a rafter-rattling drum solo.
The band is appalled (it doesn’t help that Fish hits on the lead singer’s mom, played by Christina Applegate), but his enthusiasm is contagious, and they’re soon practicing together via webcam. Not quite familiar with the technology, Fish jams in the nude, a sight that inevitably makes its way onto YouTube, attracting a shady manager (Jason Sudeikis) eager to rep “the Naked Drummer.”
The band takes off (a commentary of sorts on the tween-driven state of the music biz) and, with ADD and Vesuvius on the same label, it’s only a matter of time before Fish has to face the musicians who betrayed him (played by Will Arnett, Fred Armisen and Bradley Cooper).
Fish’s arc unfolds more or less according to formula, with even the smallest subplots playing out as expected, but the material cuts together; in other words, auds needn’t be stoned or drunk to appreciate a comedy that troubles to provide some old-fashioned structure.
But the cast still has room to riff, and with this inspired performance, Wilson’s comic persona is truly taking shape. As in “The Office,” he plays the self-righteous buffoon, with each belligerent outburst making his character seem an even bigger fool.
The weak link is the film’s music, which is neither funny nor particularly memorable. It’s easy enough to parody Fish’s hair-metal roots, but it’s hard to imagine someone who quips, “Loads of elevators play Celine Dion — that doesn’t make it right,” getting his fix drumming such vanilla tunes. (The recent indie air-drum parody “Adventures of Power” may not have this pic’s polish, but it does understand the instrument better.)
Seamless Toronto-for-Cleveland production design and crisp visuals from lenser Anthony B. Richmond complement Cattaneo’s efficient direction. Instead of feeling like a “Saturday Night Live” sketch that overstays its welcome, the entire operation has a certain momentum, growing steadily to the climactic burst of Europe’s “The Final Countdown” — a rock anthem the likes of which these characters could never touch.
Check out ‘The Rocker’ Movie Trailer: