The independent comedy-drama Rudderless marks the feature directorial debut of Oscar-nominated actor William H. Macy. Macy provides a confident, if nonchalant gloss to his first time at bat, yet the movie navigates a rather strange course, with one foot planted in lightweight indie charm and the other firmly in a more complicated dark drama. The result is amiable if formulaic, yet marked by a severe awkwardness in tone. Ultimately, Rudderless aims to be an intimately-scaled chamber piece espousing the healing power of music. (And proves an appropriate title for the proceedings.)
The wounds in need of healing belong to Sam (Billy Crudup), who at the start of the movie is a successful advertising executive, divorced and dressed with a cocky smile that appears an act from the very beginning. Tragedy strikes with the death of his only son, Josh (played in a bit part by Miles Heizer of Parenthood), a budding singer-songwriter, during a school shooting a local university. The loss sends Sam into an emotional retreat begun with a late-night shopping spree at a local liquor store. At the start of the film, Macy seems to be fashioning something akin to Lynne Ramsay’s 2011 feature We Need to Talk About Kevin, essaying on the effects of school tragedy on parents.
Two years pass with Sam becoming lost in a haze of alcohol and aimlessness that are symptomatic of an emotional retreat from the world. The movie picks back up with him living on a boat in a lakeside resort, cantankerous and unshaven, painting house and living some sort of waking dream of middle-aged arrested development. Yet his smile, with its mix of smarm and charm, is still there as if to fool others and (maybe especially) himself into believing that’s everything’s alright. In the midst of drinking, occasional work and disrupting the lakeside bliss of his haughty neighbors by his morning public peeing ritual, Sam is rocked by his past in the form of his ex-wife Emily (Felicity Huffman, Mrs. Macy herself, and well cast in a small role). She delivers Josh’s old music demos and lyric books; Emily remarks that it was their (Sam and Josh’s) thing. Sam starts listening to his late son’s songs, which at first reads as a moment of catharsis, a communion between father and son.
Macy (who co-scripted Rudderless with Casey Twenter and Jeff Robison) uses this plot thread this as a catalyst to spur the film into zippier, sprightlier terrain. One on hand the results are improbable and worse, it soft-pedals the darker, more thoughtful undercurrents of the drama for inspirational hokum. Rather than revel in an absorbing character study (something which Crudup seems up for), Rudderless instead tracks Sam’s journey as a silly sort of middle-aged fantasy rather than digging into his emotional turmoil. After performing one of Josh’s indie rock-soaked songs at a local bar, Sam finds a fan in the form a young, gawky music nerd named Quentin (Anton Yelchin, Like Crazy) who uses his determination and peskiness to goad Sam into starting a band. Despite the silliness of the role, Yelchin gives a likable, affably laid back performance.
In the frame of an awkward five minute montage they become a local success story (real life indie rock musicians Ben Kweller and Ryan Dean assist as bassist and drummer) and Rudderless becomes cheerier, froth-filled musical comedy like this past summer’s Begin Again, putting its drama aside for the hopefulness of a new indie rock voice – the songs themselves were mostly written by the SolidState duo Simon Steadman and Charlton Pettus. Yet it all seems a bit too easy, too schematic and overly diagrammed (they even name their band “Rudderless”), especially considering the music itself is fairly bland. The best, if least believable musical moment occurs when Sam leads a chorus of “We Wheels on the Bus” to impress the ladies at the bar.
The sudden shift in tone from bleak, humanist drama to fuzzy musical comedy makes for strange bedfellows. It becomes especially awkward with a late-in-the-film twist that begs to be taken seriously even though it’s telegraphed from the start. A more absorbing character study is sadly too buried beneath its scruffy, all-is-well surface, a shame considering the noble effort Crudup displays as Sam. The actor invests a flint of the smug charm borrowed from his Russell Hammond, the rock star he memorably portrayed in Almost Famous, yet also hits subtle notes of remorse, guilt and frailty.
The Verdict: 2 out 5
Had a stronger film given Billy Crudup’s performance a messier, more complicated framework instead of the overly pat, sentiment-filled delusion of an everything-will-okay veneer, Rudderless perhaps might have been something more special.The leading man serves the movie more than the tonally schizophrenic movie serves him. Pitched somewhere between lightweight romp and serious hot-buttoned drama, Rudderless is watchable and never boring, but unfortunately a bit too on-the-nose thematically, and with a formulaic plot to match.