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The Rocker

When Tom Cruise slid across the floor in his underwear, a generation slickly came of age. But when that generation insists on still doing it in 2008, it's a little sad. We need to grow up, put on our pants and take a little responsibility. Every now and then, though, that floor sure looks tempting.

At least, that's one of the messages behind The Rocker. Though Rainn Wilson's Robert "Fish" Fishman's had rock and roll dreams snatched away by outside forces, it's clear that he hasn't been able to move on, unable to hold down a job, a relationship or an apartment.

Twenty years earlier, Fish had been the drummer for Vesuvius, a Cleveland band on the brink. The president of the record company, however, had a nephew who wanted to be a drummer, so Fish got kicked out before they could become world-famous. (Somewhere in this movie, ex-Beatle Pete Best pops up, but I didn't recognize him, thus proving the point, right?)

Now a bitter Fish sleeps in his sister's attic, holding tightly to the music - or at least, his interpretation of what the lifestyle should have been. When his nephew's band A.D.D. loses their drummer, it's time for Fish to step up and teach them how it's done.

There's an obvious way this movie could have gone, and in places, the script by Maya Forbes and Wallace Wodarsky does go there. But director Peter Cattaneo made his bones on The Full Monty, and The Rocker blends the sensibility of quirky small comedy with the inevitable rise to fame arc.

Has rock and roll changed so much? Though A.D.D. really does have a listenable sound, driven by the dewy (and real singer) Teddy Geiger as Curtis, it isn't until Fish's niece posts the band on YouTube that they get the attention of a record company. First it's a novelty as Fish becomes "The Naked Drummer" (it makes sense in context) but as company weasel David Marshall (Jason Sudeikis) points out, the songs get stuck in your head.

Fish doesn't understand any of that. A tour should be full of trashing hotel rooms, getting arrested and scoring with the babes. Of course, he's too old for them, he's too tired to do much trashing and though his heart and soul are rock and roll, his body just keeps making cracking noises in the strangest places.

Maybe The Rocker offers too naļve a view of high school kids today - and they do seem ridiculously chaste and sweet - but it's also believable that Curtis, nephew Matt (Josh Gadman) and would-be punk Amelia (Emma Stone from Superbad) would rather play Xbox to unwind in their hotel room than get drunk.

It's a lot like School of Rock, though not quite as loopy. Despite much of its traditional message, The Rocker doesn't wrap things up too neatly, either, which works in its favor. Fish has a flirtation that grows with Curtis' mom, played by Christina Applegate, and the awkwardness of it feels real without it ever becoming too defined.

There's the difference -- School of Rock celebrated Jack Black's oddity, while The Rocker acknowledges that Fish (and life) sometimes stands out painfully. Yet the movie really does have a tender, not gooey, heart that keeps us smiling.

Credit goes beyond Wilson, who throws himself into his comedy full gusto but still has that vaguely unsettling quality of Dwight Schrute. His (mostly) teen co-stars all underplay and have great timing. Geiger, in particular, needs to break out of essentially playing variations on himself, but he's good at it. However, it's the corners of this film that really keep this thing strong.

Cattaneo pays attention to the edges of his story and brings out interesting performances. As Fish's sister, Jane Lynch gets the rare chance to play normal, and if she's a little strident, the situation calls for it. She's also married to scene-stealer Jeff Garlin, who lives vicariously through his brother-in-law.

Big jolts of energy come from the walking id of Sudeikis' manager. As for Vesuvius, they're some of our best comic actors working today, and while it's tempting to think it's a waste to reduce the likes of Will Arnett and Fred Armisen to little more than cameos, any more would have unbalanced the movie and undercut its themes.

The Rocker entertains from start to finish without a lot of noise. It's not a huge movie, but it's one that works. Every now and then, it's okay for a feel good movie to sneak in and help us remember to bang our head. Live the dream, gang, but remember to keep the Ben-Gay on hand.

Derek McCaw

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