I was pretty much sold on The Rocker (2008) as soon as I saw the DVD cover, with a long-haired Rainn Wilson giving me a double devil-horn salute… but the back cover blurb gave me pause. To wit: “Twenty years after being kicked out of his nearly famous ‘80s rock group, Robert “Fish” Fishman (Wilson) gets a hilarious second chance at stardom when he joins his nephew’s high school garage band.” To me that implied that Fish would be an incompetent wannabe, hijacking his nephew’s dreams, and getting up to all sorts of embarrassing cringe-comedy antics along the way… but that isn’t how it actually plays out. In fact, he’s an incredibly talented drummer, who vowed never to pick up his sticks again after being betrayed by his former bandmates, shortly before they signed to a major label and sky-rocketed to fame. His nephew, ‘Matt’ (Josh Gad), actually has to use emotional blackmail to bully the downbeat Fish into joining his band for an upcoming prom-gig, which the gawky teenager is hoping will help him score with the ladies!
What follows is a surprisingly sweet, funny and sincere movie, which consistently confounded and delighted me every time I thought it might try to take a low road to laughs. Yes, Fish is a careless clown, who has a number of painful pratfalls along the way, but he’s also a true believer in the majesty of rock music, and a genuinely kind and supportive friend/mentor to his young wards. Although Wilson occasionally seems to be channelling Jack Black, I think he gives a good performance, and you can’t fault his bare-ass commitment to the role! I’m sure there are plenty actors who could get laughs out of playing a drum-kit badly, but it takes real skill to get laughs out of playing it properly.
As for the female cast members… well, there are a couple of over-qualified all-stars in minor roles: Jane Krakowski has a one-scene cameo as Fish’s soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend… and Jane Lynch plays Fish’s uptight sister, and mother to the aforementioned Matt. Fun fact: Her on-screen husband is played by Jeff Garlin, who also played her hubby in Sleepover, which co-starred Steve Carell! Meanwhile, in leading roles, you have Emma Stone as ‘Amelia’, the band’s fantastically deadpan (and rather foxy) bassist…and Christina Applegate plays ‘Kim’, the snarky single-mother of ‘Curtis’ (Teddy Geiger), the band’s sensitive and broody singer-songwriter. At first Kim finds Fish ridiculous and exasperating, but (SPOILER ALERT!) she eventually develops a grudging affection for him. In a deleted epilogue, it’s pretty obvious they’ve coupled up, but the theatrical cut of the film leaves the status of their relationship a little more ambiguous.
If you held a gun to my head, and forced me to choose between the two of them, I’d probably still rate School of Rock as the superior take on a similar concept… but there’s no reason why the two of them can’t happily co-exist on my shelf, dammit! The only mis-step this movie makes, imho, is the opening flashback, which stretches the reality level too far, and might lead viewers to expect a more absurd, Anchorman-esque comedy… which wouldn’t be a bad thing in itself, but that isn’t the kind of movie you end up with once it switches to the present day.