Deck: A middle-aged one-time drummer for a hard rock band helps his nephew’s milder band get off the ground.
Theater Release: July 30, 2008, Fox Atomic
Directed by: Peter Cattaneo
Runtime: 102 min
Cast: Rainn Wilson (Robert “Fish” Fishman), Josh Gad (Matt Gadman), Emma Stone (Amelia), Teddy Geiger (Curtis), Christina Applegate (Amelia’s Mom)
The band called “A.D.D.” has a gig to play the high school prom, but they’re suddenly without a drummer. One applicant shows up at audition with an electronic drum simulator, and he’s grooving happily along when the pianist’s uncle objects. “But lots of bands play drum loops,” says the kid, and the uncle retorts, “Lots of elevators play Celine Dion. That doesn’t make it right.”
It’s not that funny a line, right? What makes it funny is Rainn Wilson’s delivery. This actor is best known for his role as Dwight Shrute in NBC’s successful sitcom, “The Office.” When I say that in “The Rocker” he borrows from that persona, fans of that show will know immediately what I mean, although I find it hard to describe. Dwight is a naïve know-it-all, a belligerent nerd, given to asking rhetorical questions which that he then answers loftily, a paragon of self-importance. He is tall and moves awkwardly, and his high, white forehead is accentuated with parenthetical curls.
On any subject he is an expert-maybe. When confronted with an actor portraying Benjamin Franklin, Dwight pronounces, “That is not the real Ben Franklin. I am 99% sure.” His eyes are hard and staring, posing a perennial challenge. Here’s a classic Dwight speech: “It appears that the website has become alive. This happens to computers and robots sometimes. Am I scared of a stupid computer? Please. The computer should be scared of me. I have been salesman of the month for 13 of the last 12 months. You heard me right. I did so well last February that Corporate gave me two plaques in lieu of a pay raise.”
In “The Rocker,” Wilson is portraying a guy with quite a different history, but many of the elements-the tense, staring eyes, the inclination to make pronouncements, the long-limbed awkwardness-contribute to making the character work. The character’s name is Robert “Fish” Fishman (the odd moniker is an in-joke; the drummer for the rock band Phish is Jon “Fish” Fishman), and he has not had a successful career. In 1986 he was the drummer for a Cleveland metal band named Vesuvius, but was kicked out on the eve of their breakout to make way for the son of the record label’s boss He’s spent the past 20 years brooding, and when his nephew, Matt, begs him to be their substitute drummer, he initially refuses: “Drumming is pain. I’ve had enough pain for a lifetime.” It’s another line that’s a dud on the page, but gets laughs when delivered with intense, staring, over-emphasis.
Once Fish plays with A.D.D., he becomes energized with thoughts of at last attaining his dream of fame and savoring the rock-n-roll life. Due to a fluke-more about that below—the band becomes widely known, and sets out on a state-wide tour. (Another in-joke: the driver of the classic Silver Eagle Coach bus is portrayed by Pete Best, famous for being the drummer fired by the Beatles before Ringo came along). Fish is ardent about living the road-tour high life, but at his age, he’s soon a mass of sprains and bruises. He tosses a TV out a motel window, and when the band is being processed into jail, he’s exuberant. “We’re going behind bars-that’s what it’s all about!” The band’s lead singer responds, “For me it’s been more about the music.”
You’ve probably guessed by now that the film’s story line is not its strong point. This is a “follow your dreams” comeback movie, in which the lead character reawakens after years of resignation and recommits to his long-lost goal. The various disapproving or eager grownups adhere to familiar stereotypes, as does the younger generation. When the band’s bassist summarizes the group, there’s a flash of self-recognition: “You’re the angsty, brooding songwriter; and you’re the nerd; and I’m the ironic punk girl; and he’s the old guy. Where have you seen that before?”
There’s plenty we’ve seen before. The broody songwriter, Curtis, is still grieving his parents’ divorce and his dad’s abandonment, and it appears to be the topic of most of his songs. A dirge-like new tune repeats the chorus, “I’m so bitter.” Fish recommends that they change it to “I’m not bitter,” and “push the tempo.” With those changes, the song truly rocks. Yes, you first saw this scene in “That Thing You Do!” (1996), and it’s a better movie. When Fish confronts Vesuvius at the movie’s climax, they have improbably acquired British accents-it appears they’ve become “[This is] Spinal Tap” (1984). And the entire plotline recalls “School of Rock” (2003), though Jack Black has a sweetness at the core that makes that film more beguiling.
Another similarity with “School of Rock” is that both films give you an opportunity to see the lead character in a state of undress more complete than you probably crave. If you’ve seen the trailer for “The Rocker,” you know that Fish’s nephew Matt (a character given more depth than expected by young actor Josh Gad) sets up a computer network so they can practice together by webcam from four different locations. However, Fish thinks it’s a microphone, not a camera, so he doesn’t bother to get dressed. The video of “the naked drummer” ends up on YouTube, and scores millions of hits, launching the band’s career.
But here’s the surprise: that episode then drops out of the plot completely. The most disappointing thing about this film is that it is, in that way, so disconnected, lacking development of characters, relationships, or plot. People fall in love, we’re told, but we don’t see why. A major turning point occurs because a character looks at a photo of happier times. Such things are asserted rather than demonstrated, so there’s an overall artificiality.
On the other hand, there are lots of genuine laughs, and not all attributable to Wilson alone. Comedian Dimitri Martin portrays the artsy director of their video, who seemingly intends to photograph it one still frame at a time. Jason Sudeikis, as the record label’s liaison, is all false bonhomie with a viper tongue; when chubby Matt sees himself in the video he says, “The camera adds 20 pounds, right?,” and Sudeikis’ character tosses off, “Yeah, the camera and food.”
Though the storytelling is thin, the accumulation of such funny moments make “The Rocker” a worthy addition to the list of comedies about rock bands; just don’t expect it to rise to the top of the hit parade.
Talk About It
1. Did you once have a career goal different from what you are doing now? What was it? Do you think it would be a good idea to attempt to achieve that dream?
2. Why is the rock lifestyle associated with destruction and hedonism? Is it something in the music, or something in the artists’ character? Or is it simply the natural result of gaining enough money to fulfill every impulse? What would you do if you had unlimited money?
3. The character Curtis has never recovered from his parents’ divorce, which occurred when he was 4 years old. Do you find this believable?
The Family Corner There are references to sex and drugs, and some questionable language. Rear nudity used for comic effect.