'Rock of Ages' proves every rose does have its thorns

The ads for "Rock of Ages" promise, in the immortal words of Poison, nothin' but a good time. And for a while, the musical ode to big dreams and even bigger hair delivers just that.

At times, it's a deliriously giddy, goofy love letter to '80s rock that feels like a Will Schuester fever dream from an insanely budgeted episode of "Glee."

For long stretches, it would be nearly impossible to knock the grin from your face.

Then the music slows, the movie tries to tell a story, and the party comes to a screeching halt.

Tired of being a small-town girl livin' in a lonely world, aspiring singer Sherrie (Julianne Hough, "Dancing with the Stars") leaves Oklahoma on a Greyhound bound for the bright lights of the Sunset Strip. Since it's 1987 and she's already motorin', she'd might as well lead the rest of the bus in a giggle-inducing rendition of "Sister Christian" that seems designed to rival the "Tiny Dancer" scene in "Almost Famous."

This leads straight into her L.A. arrival and a dizzying blend of "Just Like Paradise," where even the hookers sing along, and "Nothin' But a Good Time" - all before the first line of dialogue.

The wide-eyed Sherrie then gets mugged, meets cute with Drew (Diego Boneta, "90210") and is hired at the legendary Bourbon Room - where Drew, also an aspiring singer, works as a barback - all in about 90 seconds.

Their love story is supposed to anchor "Rock of Ages," but their relationship is among the movie's weaker links. The actors are too cute, too earnest. Even when Hough's Sherrie is supposed to be gritty, it feels like animated birds should be circling her shoulders. She's Sandy from "Grease," never truly getting her "Tell me about it, stud" transformation.

Instead, the movie's heart and soul belong to aging rocker Dennis Dupree (a scruffy, shaggy Alec Baldwin), owner of the struggling Bourbon Room, and his technician, Lonny (a fantastically coiffed Russell Brand). Whether they're singing "I Love Rock 'n' Roll" into a hairbrush or performing a riotous take on "Can't Fight This Feeling," the duo - Baldwin's Tweedledee to Brand's Tweedledaft - have more chemistry than Hough and Boneta could ever hope to muster.

They're upstaged only by Tom Cruise as Stacee Jaxx, a mashup of every frontman to ever prowl the Sunset Strip, whose Bourbon Room show is supposed to save the club from financial ruin.

Stacee sings from his crotch, sending any woman who wanders near him into a near-orgasmic trance. You can practically hear the panties hitting the floor - assuming they were even in the building in the first place. And Cruise drowns himself in the role with the swagger of "Magnolia" and the fearless commitment of "Tropic Thunder."

The movie makes some pretty significant departures from the stage version that stopped at the Flamingo Las Vegas in 2006 on its way to Broadway and is scheduled to return in December at The Venetian. Goodbye, Germans. Hello, Catherine Zeta-Jones as the crusading mayor's wife - gyrating in a church to "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" like a sexy, sexy Tipper Gore - who threatens to turn the Bourbon Room into a Benetton by the end of the month.

"Rock of Ages" also plays fast and loose with reality. It incorporates songs that weren't around in 1987. It inhabits a world where Def Leppard exists but "Pour Some Sugar On Me" belongs to Stacee Jaxx. And no rocker worth his leather pants would be caught dead singing Starship's "We Built This City."

Eventually, the novelty of the all-star singalongs begins to wear off. And the middle drags on for so long, you'd swear Kurt Cobain was about to shuffle in and render the whole thing obsolete.

"Rock of Ages" rallies from time to time, usually in the service of yet another over-the-top production number. Everyone involved seems to be having a blast, and their enthusiasm is infectious - up to a point.

But, then, instead of the rousing finale demanded by a movie like this - a movie where everything since the opening credits has been turned up to 11 - the climax feels more like the "Put a Little Love in Your Heart" singalong at the end of "Scrooged."

"Rock of Ages" could have been a jukebox hero. But, eventually, you will stop believin'.

Contact Christopher Lawrence at clawrence@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4567.