The Rocker bears the decidedly unmistakable odor of something made in 1983 and left on the shelf ever since. Which isn't to suggest that it's fetid product in need of tossing out: Parts of it are genuinely delightful, and Rainn Wilson doesn't squander his first feature-film starring role (we'll just pretend The Last Mimzy never happened) as a washed-up metal drummer redeemed by a nebbishy nephew, the love of Christina Applegate, and (natch) the power of rock 'n' roll.
It's just that The Rocker — a juvenile fairy tale that plays like the pilot for a Jonas Brothers sitcom on the Disney Channel — comes off as something penned by an old dude who hasn't bought music since it was sold "on records," or ever met a music executive who wasn't actually a character in This Is Spinal Tap.
Directed by Peter Cattaneo and written by the husband-and-wife team of Maya Forbes (The Larry Sanders Show) and Wallace Wolodarsky (The Simpsons), The Rocker is more or less the Pete Best Story — the tale of a poor bastard who gets shitcanned when he's right on the brink of record-bin immortality. (The original Beatles drummer, who was given the boot in 1962, even cameos for a blink-and-you'll-miss-it moment.) The film opens in Cleveland in the mid-1980s, where Wilson's Robert "Fish" Fishman is behind the kit for Vesuvius, a metal band fronted by three head-bobbing, hair-waving morons (Will Arnett, Fred Armisen, and Bradley Cooper) whose loyalty extends only to the dotted line. Told to either ditch their drummer or lose a deal with a record label, his bandmates choose the former, sending Fish into a tailspin from which he nearly never recovers.
Fish, whose every errand apparently involves passing by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, spends the next two decades more or less working menial cubicle gigs — imagine Wilson's Dwight Schrute from The Office sporting a mullet beneath which he keeps all those years of pent-up rage, easily unleashed whenever he hears a Vesuvius track (even though, seriously, the band would've stopped being popular in, oh, 1988, and that's being generous — Vesuvius is less a Guns N' Roses rip or a Metallica nod than a Poison-ous dart jammed directly into the cochlea). Surprisingly, it takes a good 20 years before he winds up sleeping in his sister's attic; given how easy he is to set off, Fish should've been homeless or homicidal much earlier.
But, right, this is sugary-sweet stuff — pop instead of rock, a throwaway tune whose chorus isn't even catchy enough to linger past the closing credits. So it's all Up with People: Fish falls in with A.D.D., the high-school band for which his portly, pale nephew (Josh Gad) plays keyboard. He wins over the sulking, songwriting frontman (teenypop star Teddy Geiger) and the brooding, scowling guitarist (Superbad's Emma Stone). They're signed and touring and sell-out famous within hours of making their inauspicious Interwebs debut; and, sooner or later, they're forced to choose between opening for Vesuvius or busting up the band.
Though the movie is filled with caricatures and clowns, Wilson plays Fish with just the right flavor of creepy: affable and indefatigable. Characters like Fish — outsiders skulking around the shadows in the margins — are his specialty, and have been ever since he made his first big impression as a funeral-home apprentice on Six Feet Under. Will Ferrell probably could have played Fish, as he too will drop drawer for a big hairy, hoary gag. And he might have gone further than Wilson, who is more comfortable doing goofy and slightly damaged than full-blown stupid. But Ferrell has played this role a dozen times; Wilson at least makes the familiar a little less so.
And unlike Ferrell's characters, Fish isn't delusional — he's merely passionate and misunderstood. He just wants to rock. And when allowed the opportunity to bang on his drums all day, Fish blossoms: He screws up, then grows up, develops a crush (on Applegate, as Geiger's hot mom) and earns his redemption.
Opening just days after Pineapple Express and Tropic Thunder both trolled for sicko laughs with guns a-blazing, The Rocker is a relatively tame, sweet-tempered tonic — Uncle Buck set to an emo-pop soundtrack. And Wilson's casting only makes The Rocker a better joke. The man who played curmudgeonly Rolling Stone editor David Felton in Almost Famous re-creates the "golden god" moment from Cameron Crowe's autobiography, then knocks it on its flabby, self-aggrandizing ass.
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