By OnMilwaukee Staff Writers   Published Sep 08, 2001 at 4:55 AM

"Rock Star" is a movie with an identity crisis more serious than the one suffered by its leading character. It's not sure if it wants to be a romantic comedy set against the music industry or a serious and searing examination of the ups and downs of fame and fortune. For a while, it's also a look at the rise of a blue collar nobody.

So, despite scattered moments of greatness and a charismatic lead performance from Mark Wahlberg, the confusion and lack of vision leads to a meandering and only occasionally successful film.

Wahlberg stars as Chris Cole, a young man fixing copiers and living with his parents in 1980s Pittsburgh. He also happens to be a die-hard fan of hair metal supergroup Steel Dragon, the most popular rock group of the decade.

Chris fronts a Steel Dragon tribute group called Blood Pollution. They perform around Pittsburgh and have a loyal local following thanks to Chris, who has an exceptional voice and magnetic stage presence.

Blood Pollution is more than just a hobby for Chris. He lives to play Steel Dragon songs and strives to emulate the group's sound and the looks, yelp and moves of its lead singer, Bobby Beers (Jason Flemyng).

But the rest of the group tires of Chris's extreme desire to play the songs exactly as the band does, with no tolerance for sloppy play or small mistakes. They kick him out, hire a new singer and vow to make it by playing original songs and no covers.

Miraculously (and highly unlikely) Steel Dragon gets a tape from two groupies of a live Blood Pollution show. Band member Kirk Cuddy (Dominic West) calls Chris and invites him out to LA to audition for the lead singer position. Bobby Beers, like Chris, has been kicked out of his band.

Since Chris knows all of the band's songs and has an incredible singing voice, he aces his audition and gets the gig. He gets to be the lead singer of his favorite band.

Steel Dragon is already at the top, so Chris has to play catch up. They introduce him to the life of a rock star. You've seen it all on VH1. Sex, drugs and money basically. Thanks to television, none of this is shocking anymore. We know that girls throw themselves at musicians and that they all use large amounts of drugs and alcohol.

"Rock Star" gets off to a promising start. It introduces us to Chris, his obsession with Steel Dragon, the tribute band, his loving family and his longtime girlfriend Emily (Jennifer Aniston). Chris is an instantly likeable guy and thus far the movie is funny and efficiently set up.

But then John Stockwell's screenplay and the rest of the story become a problem. The inconsistent tone is distracting and causes one to feel like they are watching two different movies. In an effort to please all viewers, parts heavily emphasize the romantic comedy angle, while others focus on the life of a rock star and what happens when a newcomer is introduced to this life.

The shifts back and forth between comedy and drama don't work. It doesn't evolve naturally and instead feels forced. The effort to please everyone hurts the quality of the film.

A smart move would have been to drop the Emily character all together and concentrate solely on Chris and his new life as a rock star. The Emily character is underwritten and underdeveloped anyway. It's a thankless role and this movie didn't need to have a romance thrown in for good measure.

There is a lot to admire here though. Wahlberg is perfect, creating sympathy for his character from the start and always maintaining believability. The rest of the cast is great, too, particularly Timothy Spall as Mats, the band's manager and general caretaker.

The music is also outstanding. In addition to songs created specifically for the movie to be performed by Steel Dragon, there are songs by Bon Jovi, Motley Crue, INXS and many other staples of 80s music. Steel Dragon's tunes blend in seamlessly with real 80s hair metal.

In the end, though, ‘Rock Star" is an almost was. It never achieves its full potential. The ending is disarmingly out of place and the abrupt and numerous changes in Chris do not ring true. It's too ambitious for its own good and tries to do too much, which ultimately is not enough.

Grade: C+

"Rock Star" opened at theatres everywhere on Fri., Sept. 7.