A likeable, if formulaic comedy – with one foot in the redemptive, character-driven camp of director Peter Cattaneo’s The Full Monty and the other in the currently-fashionable gross-out bodily fluids yuckfest cycle.
In a 1985 prologue, Cleveland-based hair metal band Vesuvius are signed to a major label on the condition that they drop their drummer Robert ‘Fish’ Fishman (Rainn Wilson) to make room for the nephew of an industry bigshot. Twenty years on, Vesuvius are a major act on the point of being inducted into the Rock Hall of Fame – which Fish, a newly-fired low-level slacker still nursing a grudge, can see from the window of his sister’s attic, which he has had to move into since his girlfriend threw him out. Matt (Josh Gad), Fish’s porky nephew, is in a band called A.D.D. which has a gig to play at the prom but has lost its drummer – while they’re holding auditions, Fish overhears a kid using samples and strides into the garage to throw the geek out, and the band reluctantly ask him to sit in. Fish ruins the prom with a loud, sweaty solo but hangs around with the band, almost subliminally having a good effect on songwriter/frontman Curtis (Teddy Geiger) – turning the kid’s resentful whiny song ‘Bitter’ into an anthem by suggesting he change it to ‘Not Bitter’ – and shy, post-modern bass waif Amelia (Emma Stone); he also encourages his sweetly envious salaryman brother-in-law (Jeff Garlin) to loosen up, crackles a bit in meets with Curtis’s formerly punk single mom (Christina Applegate) and even begins to win over his sceptical sister (Jane Lynch). A Youtube clip of the band practicing gets a lot of play because Fish is naked in it, and the band are picked up by the same label that still have Vesuvius – repped by the traditionally oily and unscrupulous ARR man (Jason Sudeikis, very funny in a standard plot-motor baddie role). A.D.D. go on tour, become more popular, have conflicts, nearly break up when the villain works on Curtis’s resentment of Fish getting close to his mom, and have an ironic, vindicating triumph when they open for Vesuvius – who have picked up Spinal Tap accents to match their actual British drummer – at the Hall of Fame gig, pleasing the audience when the headliners flee in humiliation after a dropped mike reveals that they are lip-syncing.
Like a lot of recent American comedies, the tone is all over the place: in the slapstick prologue, Fish is so furious at being ditched that he develops Terminator-like powers and pursues his fleeing bandmates at super-speed and survives being thrown off at high speed, and there’s a running gag about how much he sweats as he plays which doesn’t square with the extensive scenes that play on Wilson’s flabby, often-exposed physique (he also has a puke-in-the-pocket trick that mercifully doesn’t recur), but another running gag realistically deals with the amount of damage Fish does to himself with his partying. The film often calms down and becomes reasonably affecting in scenes with the credible, sweet kids who live a surprisingly PG lifestyle in contrast with Fish’s ageing rocker irresponsibility (though there’s only the briefest hint of drug abuse and sexual misdeeds). A sign that times have changed is that this is a teen movie in which the parents aren’t total idiots – they are concerned for their kids, but are supportive of their interests, keen that they make the most of their opportunities (though it’s something of a criticism of A.D.D. that they make music their parents can enjoy) and haven’t dropped their own musical enthusiasms. Wilson, who has done a range of supporting comedy nerds and geeks, handles this star turn well — though the script should probably have come up with a rocker name that wasn’t so associated with the former Marillion front man. It’s soft enough for a teen audience in that the really seamy style of the rock lifestyle is ignored in favour of slapstick, and it accepts that a bunch of teenagers won’t have their lives ruined by a sudden rush of fame and money, that Curtis’s long missing father (the band’s album is called Abandonment Issues) won’t show up and want his share of the cash (unless there’s a Rocker II) and that Fish can be a wild man of rock who only hurts himself by physically maladroit stunts as opposed to, say, heroin.