This isn't going to be a review of "Rock of Ages." That's partly because I already wrote one in short form for Time Out and the film doesn't much benefit from extended analysis, and partly because I'd only end up repeating much of Andrew O'Hehir's bang-on piece for Salon, which rightly celebrates Adam Shankman's gleefully (with emphasis on the 'glee') silly hair-metal musical for the very ersatz quality for which many other critics are punishing it. As if hair metal was ever about authenticity in the first place. Suffice to say the film aims no higher than it can hit, and as two hours of quippy, gaudily decorated Hollywood karaoke, it hits pretty squarely. I more or less loved it.

More interesting than the film, however, and more worthy of considered conversation, is Tom Cruise's fascinating central performance in it -- a turn that earns the "central" tag despite its essentially supporting status, and not just because it reduces kewpie-doll leads Julianne Hough and Diego Boneta to sparkly wallpaper whenever he deigns to show up. (You can practically feel the film cowering as he makes his dimly lit entrance. We're trembling ourselves.) 

No, "Rock of Ages" is built entirely around the mystique of Cruise's character, fictional Axl Rose-alike rock god Stacee Jaxx, any semblance of structure and tension in the film dependent on his appearances and absences alike. And if one were to neaten that sentence by suggesting that "Rock of Ages" is built around the mystique of Tom Cruise himself, well, you wouldn't be wrong. 

It seem astonishing, but Tom Cruise has been a movie star for nearly 30 years. And while his features remain stubbornly ageless -- which is not to say youthful, not exactly at least -- he's beginning to let it show in other, more obliquely weary ways. His star hasn't faded, but it's perhaps ascended to a point where he needn't maintain it that keenly: whether in very good films ("Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol") or very bad ones ("Knight and Day"), his most recent run of headlining roles has found him on mutedly professional form. If not quite phoning it in -- even on his A-game, he's too tightly wound a performer for that -- he nonetheless appears to have been conserving his energies, picking impassive or physically-oriented leads that don't require the full force of his movie-star charisma.

Given his steady-if-not-strenuous, work rate, and the refusal of the media, forever intrigued/aghast at his shrouded private life, to give him any room to recede, he was clearly saving that star wattage for something -- and however unlikely a conduit for it Adam Shankman may seem, "Rock of Ages" is the vehicle he's chosen to remind us of the power he wields.

What's interesting, however, is that he's done so without much reference to the Tom Cruise of old. The electric Dentyne smile that lured hordes to "Top Gun" and "Cocktail" a quarter-century ago is scarcely in evidence here; nor is the boyishly flustered Joe American appeal that defined his work in such films as "Rain Man," "The Firm" and "Jerry Maguire." Instead, Cruise's Stacee Jaxx reaffirms his performance presence with a weapon he's rarely removed from his arsenal: simple, snaky, slightly grubby sex.

For all the romantic leads he's played and magazine covers he's graced, the perennially tidy-looking Cruise has always been an oddly sexless star: not in a particularly virtuous or immature way, mind, but in a guarded, reserved one. We've seen his immaculately sculpted torso any number of times, but his characters routinely seem politely cut off at the waist, burdened with too many other responsibilities to fuck. It's a quality Stanley Kubrick ingeniously exploited by casting him in "Eyes Wide Shut," the most sexual film he'll likely ever appear in, and one of the most tortuously impotent characters he'll ever play.

In "Rock of Ages," however, Cruise is tasked with playing a character whose very definition has disappeared beneath his libido: a man with tattooed six-shooters pointing straight at his crotch and a veritably factory-line of dirtied Barbie-doll groupies at his disposal, Stacee Jaxx is a man for whom sex has long since passed pleasure and become sustenance. He's as much an addict as Michael Fassbender's randy corporate shark in "Shame," with the difference that his Neverland lifestyle doesn't merely accommodate such excess, but positively depends on it. He is, in other words, an awkward fit for an actor who, it seems to the public, had to calculatedly jump on Oprah's sofa to drive the point home that he is indeed a lover.

It's that very improbability that makes the resulting performance -- a lithe, funny, wickedly self-reflexive one -- Cruise's first in years to acknowledge and reflect his stardom. Casting icons as other icons, fictitious or otherwise, tends to be a double-or-nothing strategy: the two outsize personae either crowd each other out of the screen or nest in each other, locating a kind of tinderbox truth in both, and the latter outcome is happily the one Cruise arrives at here.

Not only does he gamely cop to the irony of playing someone whose celebrity has exiled them from functional society -- Jaxx may not (yet) be a Scientologist, but he amusingly expresses his own mystic minority values -- but he wears the character's sexuality as a kind of leering invitation to the tabloid society that has questioned and inconclusively scrutinized his own artfully concealed sex life for the better part of three decades.

In a stunt far more daring and sly than his amusing against-type cameo as a vulgar studio chief in "Tropic Thunder," Cruise flirts with playing himself expressly by not playing himself. The ostensible miscasting shows through in spots -- with his waxen chest, sleek man-bob mane and proficient but evidently autotuned singing voice, he inevitably doesn't quite look or sound like a metal frontman, however much the makeup team and Rita Ryack's terrific costumes aid the illusion. But even that distance feels like a virtue: Cruise is playing a role here, but so is Stacee Jaxx, and if both men's real selves remain under wraps in Shankman's proudly surface-obsessed fireworks show, the performance knowingly suggests just how much off-screen acting goes into being a star.

Cruise has pulled off this trick once before, and in a far more valuable film to boot. Halfway through "Rock of Ages," it hit me that the actor was baldly playing Stacee Jaxx neither as himself nor as a David Lee Roth type, but as Frank T.J. Mackey, the "woman-taming" self-help guru he played in Paul Thomas Anderson's "Magnolia." The characters share an aggressive, offputting sexual stridency and even an approximate hairdo -- Jaxx could very well have a strutting hit song called "Respect the Cock" in his back catalogue --but what links them principally is a kind of brittle self-protectiveness that cracks too easily under investigation. (Both characters reveal themselves largely in tense interview scenes.)

In 1999, before the focus on his private life had shifted more to curiosities of religion than sexuality, Cruise's performance as the effortfully self-constructed Mackey -- still, by many a yard, the best work of his career -- seemed designed to tease audiences with the security of his secrets. 13 years later, his performance as Stacee Jaxx is an equally ballsy, if oddly unflattering, assertion of his own legend, and an equally brazen refusal to admit what makes him tick. In an age where stars are compelled to make themselves as available to their audiences as possible via Twitter feeds, reality shows and planted TMZ scoops, Tom Cruise, like Garbo before him, knows that lasting stardom is built on inscrutability. In playing the wafer-thin Stacee Jaxx, Cruise offers an entertaining approximation of a sex-fuelled rock god, but what he's really playing is one of the last real movie stars.

 

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