Rainn Wilson and 'The Rocker': Born to Be Mild

Wilson is out of
Wilson is out of "The Office" but can't bring the crowd to its feet in the new film. (By George Kraychyk -- Twentieth Century Fox)
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By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 20, 2008

If the meek inherit the Earth, they'll give an Oscar to "The Rocker." But, being meek, they won't tell anybody.

The movie is so tepid and inoffensive: It reminded me of a '70s Disney live-action product, with clean-scrubbed "hippies" like Johnny Whitaker chafing harmlessly under the wise ministrations of Suzanne Pleshette, whose job was to keep the kids in hand. Here's the difference: The Suzanne Pleshette part now goes to Christina Applegate, who makes the most of it.

Anyway, the film might be described as a fantasy from the head of Pete Best, the discarded Beatle drummer (who appears as himself here) and whom "the lads" fired when they heard that producer George Martin didn't care for his drumming. In this case, Rainn Wilson plays Robert "Fish" Fishman, a drummer fired by the group Vesuvius when a music exec decides his own wannabe son is a better skins-pounder. Vesuvius goes on to greatness and Fish goes on to bitter nothingness; but then he finds a new band and, miracle of miracles . . .

If only the movie had some bite, some edge, some anger, some insight. Instead it's generic, staying far away from the darker temptations of the rock scene. Its idea of rock depravity is Wilson gargling beer, an image so mild it makes you pine for the harder-edged comedy of the Judd Apatow school, where sexuality and profanity (and R ratings) are proudly confronted. Those movies are also funny in a way the fall-down-go-boomisms of "The Rocker" never achieve.

As "The Rocker" explains, the bitter, disappointed Fish wastes years weeping over spilled milk. Finally, with all his options spent, he takes up residence in his sister's attic in working-class Cleveland, where he can see the lights of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame through the dormer. Wahhhhhhhh. But he's asked to sub as drummer in a garage band on prom night -- he's 20 years older than his band mates -- and don't you just know it, couldn't you just guess it, they turn out to have a great sound. Can the Top 20 be far behind? Soon enough, they're on the road, living out a rock fantasy, or in Fish's case, reliving out a rock fantasy.

The problems are many and unsolvable. First of all, Wilson doesn't relate too well with the kids (unimpressive Teddy Geiger, Emma Stone and Josh Gad), who in fact don't relate too well with one another, and the music they produce is pretty much pap. So much for the excitement of rock. And when the groupies come around, it seems ridiculous. Only Applegate, as one of the moms, has any life or sparkle and seems slightly real, and there's a shred of what might have been an interesting movie as she and Wilson develop a relationship, despite the drumsticks in his pocket.

But the big flaw is the miscasting of Wilson. He's fabulous on "The Office," and has dominated in a movie before, in the long-ago and all-but-forgotten "My Super Ex-Girlfriend," where he bossed poor Luke Wilson around.

But the kids he bosses around here never give him much of a fight. Worse, if ever there was a movie that was built around Jack Black, this is it; it's so Jack Blackian in its conceit, you think it must have been plucked from Black's reject pile while he was off making "Tropic Thunder." The piece is structured around a performer whose specialty -- as Black has shown many times, but most particularly in "School of Rock" -- is inappropriately intense anger and hysteria. You yearn to see a Black rage at the helpless, cowering cluelessness of his younger rock compadres and then, knowing he's gone too far, his histrionic bootie-kissing back-stepping.

Rainn Wilson seems entirely too intelligent, too articulate, too rational for such behavior. And basically that's the movie right there: Its whole trick is Wilson vs. the kids and it just doesn't work. Even a couple of "SNL"-ers like Jason Sudeikis and Fred Armisen can't help matters. You can't even call it bad; it's just . . . negligible.

The Rock er (102 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for drug and sexual references, nudity and profanity.

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