With "The Rocker," Rainn Wilson joins the select company of Jack Black in "School of Rock." He plays Robert "Fish" Fishman, a beaten-down insurance company employee who, for a brief time in the 1980s, was the drummer for a group called Vesuvius, which, soon after they kicked him out, scaled the heights of hard-rock stardom. He's never gotten over it.
Fish has been idle until his nerdy nephew Matt (Josh Gad) asks him to be the last-minute choice for drummer of his garage band, appropriately named A.D.D. Seized by visions of rock nirvana, Fish goes back on his vow never to execute another rimshot. He also revives his ritual of practicing in the nude. YouTube turns him into an instant celebrity and pretty soon A.D.D. is on tour, with the mother of the handsome lead singer-guitarist, Teddy Geiger (played by Christina Applegate), in tow. Seemingly straight-laced, she turns out to be a good match for Fish's gonzo gyrations.
A whacked-out, superannuated, would-be rock star might seem to be too easy a comic target, but Wilson gives this sad sack so many fresh twists that he never wears out his welcome. Like Black in "School of Rock," Wilson knows how to modulate the craziness; Fish's stillnesses are as funny, and as oddball, as his manic moments.
Is he talented? In a way, but what counts here is that Fish is so passionate about his second chance at stardom that it really doesn't matter if he's any good or not. What matters is that he's fulfilling his gaudiest fantasies. This requires a surplus of costume changes – kimonos, headbands, leopard skin pants. For a drummer who likes to prance nude, Fish sure likes his haberdashery.
Director Peter Cattaneo ("The Full Monty") and his screenwriters, Maya Forbes and Wally Wolodarsky, have a light-hearted affinity for '80s rock. Many of the jokes are riffs not only on that era but also on other rock satires, especially "This Is Spinal Tap," the ultimate classic of the genre. There's nothing in "The Rocker" to equal the finest moments of that film, in part because "Tap" had a superduper ensemble of comic actors. In "The Rocker," Emma Stone, as the fourth member of the band, and Jeff Garlin, as Fish's brother-in-law, have a few choice moments, and so does Jason Sudeikis as the group's slimeball manager. But Wilson is pretty much the whole show. With nobody else around to steal from, he ends up stealing scenes from himself.
The numbers by A.D.D. and Vesuvius were all composed specifically for the movie, and they could be sharper. So could the finale, which fizzles when it should ignite. But Wilson is having so much fun cavorting and wailing and bawling and whooping that you'd have to be made of stone not to cheer him on. Fish's talents may not be the highest, but his spirits certainly are. Grade: B+ (Rated PG-13 for drug and sexual references, nudity, and language.)