"Mildly entertaining" is the kiss of box-office death these days. We live in an extreme era and we demand extreme entertainment at our movie theaters: spectacles of mass destruction featuring all-powerful heroes, super-villains, and occasionally Robert Downey Jr. These days, even our big comedies seem to require sawed-off shotguns and torture sequences. After all, with so many entertainment options available in so many different formats, we want our money's worth if we're actually going to drive somewhere.
So let us take a moment to express concern for the mildly entertaining theatrical release. Its days are numbered. Or rather, it's destined for the twilight worlds of direct-to-DVD releases and mid-level cable networks, where audiences have more patience for inoffensive, pleasant-enough movies. These are not truly bad films (which will always crowd our theaters), just not particularly memorable ones—the kind of flicks once meant for lazy afternoon matinees because you had nothing better to do, before home theaters existed.
Case in point is The Rocker, an earnest comedy starting Rainn Wilson as a past-his-prime drummer who gets a second chance to rock in his nephew's high-school emo band. It's cute. It has a few laughs. The characters are mostly likable. And you won't stop wondering why you're not watching it on the USA Network instead of in a theater.
Wilson is always interesting to observe, even when playing a character that's completely outside his sphere of believability. Best known as the beet-farming Dwight Schrute on The Office, Wilson has the oversized forehead and rodent eyes of a nerd gone slightly feral—perfect for portraying his signature oddballs. So, when called upon to fill the glittery headband of Robert "Fish" Fishman, who was the original drummer of hair-metal gods Vesuvius before being cast out in 1988 for not looking glam enough, we can only raise our eyebrows. Can he pull it off? The answer is not quite, though his unwavering commitment inspires our support.
After losing his job and his girlfriend (as well as her apartment), and still carrying 20 years' worth of bitterness over Vesuvius' success, Fish moves in with his sister's family. His nephew Matt (Josh Gad) asks him to join his high school band, A.D.D., so they can perform at the prom. Fish reluctantly plays the gig, but finds his spirits lifted by the power of rock 'n' roll, and proceeds to lead them to unlikely industry success. Along the way, Wilson grimaces as mightily as he can, bares his ass, gets repeatedly bashed in the head, and declares his lust for booze and groupies. It's a brave attempt at Belushi-level excess, and can certainly be amusing, but Wilson's performance feels too calculated to be natural; he's obviously way too smart to be as lunkheaded as Fish.
Nevertheless, the set-up is just clever enough to keep you watching. Fish sticks out like an oversized cucumber among his teenage bandmates, including the sensitive singer/songwriter Curtis (Teddy Geiger), the mean-girl bassist Amelia (Emma Stone), and shy keyboardist Matt. The life lessons he imparts to his young charges on what it means to be a rock star are familiar (trash the hotel room!), but serviceably funny. As A.D.D.'s fortunes suddenly rise on a wave of YouTube infamy, Fish at last gets his shot at rock stardom, which includes a chance to open for Vesuvius, shockingly enough.
But that raises the question: Does The Rocker rock? Again, just enough to pass muster. The original songs by Chad Fischer (a composer for TV shows like Scrubs and Private Practice) are believably radio-and Internet-friendly, though perhaps not authentic enough to make you want to actually purchase the soundtrack. Like such mainstream rock-movie predecessors as Rock Star, the performances in The Rocker don't quite capture the spark of true rock 'n' roll spontaneity; the energy stops just short of being infectious, feeling a tad too rehearsed.
But Vesuvius is awesome. From their poofy-haired '80s heyday to their grizzled, post-addiction appearance today, the members of Vesuvius are an inspiration. Unfortunately, their headlining performance is cut short near the film's end, but it's enough to make you wonder why they didn't get their own movie instead of their has-been drummer.