Drummer jokes are hard to make new. Especially, as in the case of The Rocker, when you have 100 or so minutes in which to tell them. The basic, overarching joke here is that Fish (Rainn Wilson) is a man-boy of the first order, not only delayed in moral and social behaviors, but granted something of a motivation to boot: as the film opens, Fish displays his decent chops during a show with his band from Cleveland, Vesuvius. It’s the ’80s: their hair is big, their spandex is tight, and their pyrotechnics are passable. While lead singer Lex (Will Arnett) is surely pretty, when Fish starts juggling his sticks, the girls go a little wild.
After the show, the other shoe drops, as the boys learn they have a contract with a major label — and a caveat. They have to lose their drummer to make room for an executive’s nephew. Not a new device, but a serviceable one: Fish’s bandmates are wholly un-loyal, actually trying to escape from their erstwhile friend by screeching away into the night. The fact that he chases them down and attacks their speeding van by leaping on its roof and piercing it with his sticks expands the realm of drummer jokes exponentially. He’s a kind of ninja-ized Michael Meyers monster, more terrible and more preposterous than any punchline in drummer joke history.
The movie skips ahead a couple of decades, when Fish — looking much the same except for his shorter haircut and short-sleeved business shirt and tie — is working in an office, despising every minute. Again, the movie doesn’t pull punches: his associates are nerds with precious little sense of how to interact socially, going so far as to insist he listen to the new Vesuvius CD as loudly as they can crank it on their desktops (it’s unclear how the metal band has remained in the distribution loop for 20 years, though the fact that these are nerds-for-fans might explain their enthusiasm). No matter how agonized Fish’s face, they barely notice, though his broad mugging provides for yet a few more seconds of visual gaggery: yes yes, we see, Fish remains stuck in child-gear, still resenting the betrayal and still harboring dreams (somewhat submerged beneath his abjection) of sitting at a kit again.
Lo! he gets his chance when his nephew Matt (Josh Gad) unexpectedly needs a drummer. Living with his sister Lisa (reliable Jane Lynch) and her family, Fish is to this point the loser uncle. When Matt’s emo-ish band, ADD, picked to play at their high school prom, suddenly loses their drummer (he’s grounded), Fish suggests he can fill in. After a rehearsal, Matt and his mates — frontman Curtis (pop singer Teddy Geiger) and Amelia (Emma Stone) — agree. He is, after all, from Vesuvius.
Seizing his day, Fish determines to get the band a real gig (this especially after he mucks up the prom performance, drumming “In Your Eyes” into heavy overdrive). They begin to catch on when Matt’s pesky little sister Violet (Samantha Weinstein) posts a video to the web, a video that shows Fish in his altogether while rehearsing and eating Chinese food, rather grotesquely. Though the “Naked Drummer” is surely a lame drummer jokes, the film uses it, for a minute anyway, to satirize the silliness of web-fame (three words: “Leave Britney alone!”). It’s not long, however, before the satire leads to mushier fare. The band achieves a kind of success, initiated by the arrival on Lisa’s front doorstep of the unctuous record executive David Marshall (Jason Sudekis), for whom no compliment is too audacious or meaningless (i.e., “John Lennon is rolling over in his grave to hide the giant boner you just gave him!”).
Fish convinces the parents of all the kiddies to allow them to go on the road under his chaperoning, at least until he indulges in his long-delayed dream of drinking until he pukes and trashing hotel rooms — on the record label’s dime. Here the film shifts gears a bit, as Curtis’ mom, Kim (Christina Applegate), herself a former rocker, joins the traveling party. She serves as love interest for Fish, though the fact that she’s his frontman’s mother is not just a little yucky. As The Rocker only approaches the expected Jack-Black-Will-Ferrellish level of repulsiveness occasionally (it also keeps a toe in the ultra-nice That Thing You Do! water), it’s not clear how this romance is supposed to work. Though they enjoy some late night Guitar Hero, they hardly seem suited. After Kim speechifies about becoming an adult when she learned she was pregnant (as opposed to her immature boyfriend at the time), it becomes clear her attraction to Fish is purely formulaic — she’s supposed to make him into an adult, but she’s obviously too cool for him.
While such disparity is par for the drummer joke course, The Rocker is almost salvaged by the charming performances of its actual youngsters (as opposed to the adults doing youngster shtick). The combination of Geiger’s vulnerable boy and Stone’s acerbic girl is more or less balanced by Gad’s earnest intelligence (though his eventual girlfriend seems an afterthought, as everyone else pairs off). More significantly, though, they function as if they’re in a real movie even as they are asked time and again to react to Fish’s foolishness. Increasingly a distraction in a movie that’s supposed to be about him, Fish becomes the drummer joke.