"The Rocker" is a grubby little redemption comedy that in every way feels like a consignment-shop Jack Black vehicle. It wears better on Rainn Wilson, the movie's ungainly, oft-humiliated star. Like Black in "School of Rock," Wilson, too, plays a washed-up musician reborn in the glow of youth. But the tots in that 2003 comedy have been replaced with a trio of nice Cleveland teens whose band needs a drummer. Occasional hilarity ensues.
A lot of it comes at Wilson's expense. He's less combustible than Black, but there's a lot more drama in his face that he never unleashes on "The Office," where his doofus suck-up, Dwight, goes about his schemes as deadpan as possible. Wilson is still playing a doofus, but he's all over the place here. His character, Robert "Fish" Fishman, used to drum for a hard-rock, heavy metal, glam outfit called Vesuvius. He was dumped right before the band dominated the world. That was 20 years ago. Now the group is bound for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Fish is freshly fired, recently dumped, and suddenly living with his sister and brother-in-law (Jane Lynch and Jeff Garlin). Their husky, soft-spoken son (Josh Gad) plays keyboards in a wimp-rock band called A.D.D.
Fish humiliates the band at the prom after he erupts all over a polite cover of Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes" then turns them famous after a footage of playing nude and sweaty becomes a viral-video hit. The movie certainly knows how the music-industry paradigm has shifted. YouTube is the new Dick Clark, and the movie, which Peter Cattaneo ("The Full Monty") directed, looks accordingly homemade. Cattaneo does make sure the movie's heart is in the right place. There are some nice human trimmings, including Christina Applegate, who does some decent sparring with Wilson as the mother of one of the kids in the band. After Fish gets A.D.D. arrested, she becomes a chaperone.
There is, of course, some vomiting on Wilson's behalf. But "The Rocker" is gross by obligation. Wilson seems required to be obnoxious almost because that's what would be expected of Black were he here. Behind the drum kit Wilson comes orgasmically alive. And he's somehow even better imparting life lessons to his much younger costars.
The movie is much more persuasive as an overlong work of sensitivity. A.D.D.'s frontman is an earnest brooder named Curtis (Teddy Geiger), and his entire songbook appears to be about his missing father (sample lyric: "You should have been here to teach me how to drive"). It's possible the movie, which the wife-husband team of Maya Forbes and Wallace Wolodarsky wrote, is going for satire of emo earnestness. After the band hits it big, A.D.D. releases an album called "Abandonment Issues." The movie is too gently performed to draw blood of any kind. Even with its head in the maw of fame, there is no suspense about whether the group will survive the resulting tiffs, which are best described as "early reality television."
Geiger, Gad, and Emma Stone, who plays the group's bassist, are easily the best things in the movie - so good that they make Wilson seem superfluous. And yet the band's love of Fish is sincere. They're not angling for attitudinal hipster shtick (in college perhaps) or know-it-all sarcasm. They're just good, smart, interesting kids playing lame music from the bottom of their hearts.