Doesn’t it seem like Rainn Wilson’s whole career is derivative? Be honest: It’s really only thanks to his turn as Dwight on The Office, a British show borrowed and overplayed by American TV, that you even know who he is. And what is that worth? Wilson finally having earned enough name recognition to score the sort of shallowly funny musical man-boy star vehicle that by now seems like a Hollywood hand-me-down. Swell.
Actually, all of this might work to his advantage in The Rocker, in which lateness to the table is the main concept. Here Wilson goes all out for underdog empathy, playing not even a has-been, but a wasn’t-quite. Here he is as Robert “Fish” Fishman, a schlubby, tubby Clevelander and erstwhile drummer for the burgeoning leopard-skin-and-power-chord concern known as Vesuvius.
Twenty years after getting dumped by the band, Fish finds himself also getting dumped by his girlfriend, and by his boss, and moving in, unwanted, to his sister’s attic. There he sits and seethes, what with Vesuvius having succeeded without him and somehow sustained that success even after its cultural moment obviously has passed. But Fish’s teen nephew Matt (Josh Gad) has a band too, and they need a drummer.
The prom is their first gig, which Fish blows by spazzing into an inappropriate solo during “In Your Eyes.” But before long, with devil horns perpetually hoisted, he’s ably pep-talking moody front man Curtis (Teddy Geiger), wooing Curtis’ mom (a warm, wised-up Christina Applegate), and prompting dour bassist Amelia (Emma Stone) to decide that an “ancient, crazy-faces-making rocker” actually is just the sort of drummer this band needs.
He does make real contributions. It’s Fish’s idea, for instance, to change the line “I’m so bitter” into “I’m not bitter” and speed that song’s tempo up. Up-tempo is the order of the day: Soon enough comes the label contract, the tour montage, the half-assed, highly moviefied dichotomy between rock-star life and real life, and other stock conflicts.
Screenwriters Wally Wolodarsky and Maya Forbes (working from Ryan Jaffe’s story) have solid TV-comedy credentials, and director Peter Cattaneo at least knew how to enliven situational clowning in The Full Monty. But in The Rocker, they all seem to assume that the audience knows the drill anyway, so there’s really no point in bothering with many details beyond the simple framework for Wilson’s funny minutiae.
And so, within its genre, The Rocker registers as a minor work. But this is the comedy of pop-cultural nostalgia and stunted adolescence we’re talking about. This is the fairy tale of a hair-band hanger-on who at long last has his chance to really rock — or at least to really support a few bars of adequate, innocuous, radio-ready power pop.
To those moviegoers who may have said they’re sick of seeing Will Ferrell and Jack Black just keep doing what they do, well, OK then, here’s somebody else doing it.
One day it might mean something to go to bat for this movie — and, by extension, for Rainn Wilson — in the same way that it takes courage to whip out the Warrant and White Lion when everybody else is safely on the retro bandwagon with Poison and the Crüe.
Ultimately, The Rocker may do an invaluable cultural service, by separating the true posers from the wannabes.