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Is The Rocker a Crowd Pleaser?

Memo to Rainn Wilson: a shot of a paunchy middle-aged man in his jockey shorts is not automatically funny.

Okay, it kind of is. But the obligatory Will Ferrell ™ tighty-whitey shot of Wilson, so inimitably Schrutey as Dwight Schrute on NBC’s The Office, is not enough to sustain a 100-minute comedy.

The Rocker could have been — should have been — as crowd-pleasing as an encore of Pour Some Sugar On Me. That it turns out to be an almost entirely laugh-free comedy must be blamed on the director, Peter Cattaneo, who received an Oscar nomination for helming The Full Monty but now works like a man who has not even seen that film. As for Wilson, his debut as a leading man is going to turn out to be one doodle that can’t be undid.

Wilson plays Robert “Fish” Fishman, a heavy metal drummer (a subject, by the way, about which Wilco has already said all that needs to be said, in their song Heavy Metal Drummer) whose band, Vesuvius, is just about to make it big in the 1980s when the group (whose members include Will Arnett of Arrested Development and Fred Armisen, who plays Barack Obama on Saturday Night Live) fires him to create a job for the nephew of their record company’s chief.

The scene of Vesuvius rocking it ’80s style is amusing, but it’s about all the movie has to give. Fast forward 20 years, when Fish is working in a highly Schrutey job in a phone bank. Vesuvius turned out to be a rock band as indestructible as Aerosmith, and they’re about to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. An office mate brags that he’s just scored the new Vesuvius CD, and he doesn’t even know about Fish’s stint with the band. (Which seems unlikely. If you were once the drummer for Van Halen, how many beers would it take to get this information out of you?)

Fish’s girlfriend deserts him, so he moves in with his sister (Jane Lynch of Best In Show) and brother-in-law (Jeff Garlin, in freshly-mown hair and geek glasses). His teen nephew, a sluggish fat boy, needs a drummer for his band, which is about to play the prom. When asked to fill in, Fish makes it clear that this is the last thing he wants to do.

Everyone in the audience, of course, knows Fish will change his mind, join the band, help his new mates ride to fame, and finally get a chance to show up Vesuvius. So why are we even bothering to watch a movie that is as formulaic as a Whitesnake song without the virtue of a four-minute running time?

Because, supposedly, we have a desperate need to see Fish act nutty behind a drum kit, throw his drumsticks in someone’s face, and otherwise commit gross acts of slapstick. There’s a romantic subplot involving the mother (Christina Applegate) of one of Fish’s new bandmates that proves beyond all doubt that Wilson is not going to be taking any parts away from Tom Hanks. There are also endless scenes of the band (which includes Teddy Geiger, who starred in the TV series based on my novel Love Monkey, and Emma Stone, who was Jonah Hill’s love interest in Superbad) alternately bickering and laying down some hot tracks.

The songs put together by the new band, called “A.D.D.,” are pretty good light-rock numbers, but their winsome feel is miles away from the heavy-metal premise the movie rests on. The Fish character is equally mixed-up. At times he’s the exuberant hard charger who shows the kids how rock is done, but other times he’s just a bitter crank. Toward the end, Fish quits the band because they’ve been asked to open for Vesuvius at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but not only do we know he’s going to rejoin them, there’s no reason why he should storm off in the first place. This is obviously his big opportunity to show Vesuvius he did fine without them. What’s his alternative strategy — to humiliate them by going back to his job answering phones?

Never mind, let’s just cut to a shot of Wilson in animal-print trousers, Wilson vomiting into his hand, Wilson drumming naked. When he goes the full monty it’s a reminder that the movie of that name relied on believable character foibles, not cheap sight gags, for its laughs.

THE ROCKER

Directed by Peter Cattaneo

Starring: Rainn Wilson, Christina Applegate, Jane Lynch, Teddy Geiger, Emma Stone

1 star/ 4

102 minutes/Rated PG-13