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MOVIE REVIEW: "Rock of Ages'" cheesy plot accompanied by even cheesier music

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Photo: Warner Bros. Alec Baldwin and Tom Cruise star in "Rock of Ages."

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Photo: Warner Bros. Alec Baldwin and Tom Cruise star in "Rock of Ages."

ROCK OF AGES

(PG-13)

1 1/2 stars out of 4

In its first scene, "Rock of Ages" is able to overcome the hugest of hurdles facing all movie musicals -- people spontaneously and without reason breaking into song -- and isn't half bad. The perpetually upbeat Julianne Hough leads a bus full of travelers heading to Los Angeles in an ensemble cover of Night Ranger's "Sister Christian." Sadly it's all downhill from there.

For reasons sociologists are still trying to figure out, the '80s was a decade marked by big hair, ugly clothing and (mostly) really bad, simplistic, mind-numbingly dull music. Apologies to anyone in advance who believes the exact opposite to be true and if that includes you, you'll certainly appreciate "Rock of Ages" far more than almost everyone older or younger than yourself.

With the exception of two songs by Def Leppard (the title track and "Pour Some Sugar On Me"), director Adam Shankman's crushingly overlong opus (based on what was reported to be a winning stage play) refuses to include what little good music the '80s had to offer. There is no U2, Prince, Madonna, Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Van Halen or the Police and in their stead are a slew of one-hit wonder novelties and multiple songs by Journey and Foreigner.

Fans of the play who are almost certain to love the movie will argue that the songs chosen perfectly propel the plot and they have a valid point. There's no better way to add to a cheesy plot than by tossing in even cheesier music. But "Rock of Ages" isn't Cheddar or Stilton or Brie. It's not even American cheese; it's Velveeta Light.

Regarding the plot ... it's by-the-numbers boy-meets-girl-then-loses-girl-then, well, you know the rest. Hough plays Sherrie, a bright-eyed Oklahoman who dreams of making it big as a singer. Upon arriving in L.A. she is immediately mugged and subsequently consoled by Drew (Diego Boneta), a bar-back working at the infamous Bourbon Room bar (based on the far more edgy Whiskey A Go-Go night club from the '60s).

Drew, too, wants to be a star but is infected with massive stage fright. When the opening act for a big show backs out at the last minute, Sherrie begs club owner Dennis (Alec Baldwin) to give Drew a shot and Dennis goes along with it conceding no one cares about the opening act anyway. The headliner is the metal band Arsenal led by Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise) who are about to perform their farewell show before Jaxx goes solo.

What was initially greeted as a brilliant bit of stunt casting turns out to be a major bust. Cruise is by far the weakest link in a movie strewn with weak links and it is the first appearance of his character at the 20-minute mark that grinds the movie to a screeching halt. In addition to being far too old for the role, Cruise takes the stereotypical egomaniac/drunk/oversexed rock star shtick to dizzying new heights (or lows if you wish).

Fans of the play may or may not be surprised (make that shocked) to discover that original book writer Chris D'Arienzo (with help from two other scribes) has radically changed the plot, the most glaring involving a key scene involving Sherrie and Stacee. This single modification completely throws off the rest of the story, although it did make it far easier for the studio to garner that coveted "PG-13" rating, which is all that really matters, right?

Included in the collateral damage are a few otherwise talented performers who still manage to do OK even while selling their souls. Catherine Zeta-Jones, Malin Akerman, Bryan Cranston and Mary J. Blige as a club manager each deliver a modicum of wit and verve to otherwise one-dimensional characters. Not faring nearly as well is Paul Giamatti as Stacee's loathsome manager. With this one role Giamatti has practically wiped out all the credibility and good will he has amassed over the last decade.

"Rock of Ages" is something that could happen to characters in "Glee" or "High School Musical" after they graduate. The real world is not nearly as forgiving as high school and if you can't make it as a rocker or balladeer you can always join a white boy rap group or become a stripper. The possibilities for gainful fallback employment in Hollywood's multifaceted entertainment factory are virtually limitless. (Warner Bros.)