The film captures the excitement of playing live music.
If you're like me, you fell in love with Billy Crudup as the charismatic rock guitarist in Cameron Crowe's marvelous 2000 film Almost Famous. Crudup honors that memory with a fine performance in the musical drama Rudderless, even if the musician he plays is not so much charismatic as he is pathetic. Crudup's acting is one of several components I admire in the feature directorial debut of actor William H. Macy, who also cowrote the screenplay. But I have serious concerns. I'll get to them momentarily.
The film starts with a horror. Crudup plays an advertising professional, Sam, whose life is upended when his son (Miles Heizer) dies in connection with a killing spree on a college campus. Two years later, Sam has collapsed, personally and professionally. He lives alone on a sailboat and works as a housepainter. He drinks too much and doesn't shower enough.
His son was a gifted and prolific songwriter, and Sam unearths some of his recordings. Presenting the material as his own, Sam performs at an open mic. The music catches the ear of Quentin (Anton Yelchin), an enthusiastic but deeply insecure singer, and they form a band with two other young musicians. Before long they are playing to enthusiastic club audiences. The young men are excited about their commercial prospects, but Sam is wary.
There is a lot of music, and the songs, which were written by Clem Snide's Eef Barzelay, are very good. Macy captures the excitement of playing live music at this level -- even if, as is true of most rock movies, including Almost Famous, the depiction is stylized and the details aren't uniformly realistic.
More troubling is the story that hinges on Sam lying about who wrote the songs. Lying like this is a lazy plot device, familiar from mediocre television. I'll grant that it is true to Sam's character. Alcoholics tend to lie.
I'm more troubled still by the way Macy handles the movie's grand theme, school shootings. It's one of the most disturbing issues of our time, and the catastrophe that begins the film resonates throughout. I won't spell out how, but I will say that by the end, Barzelay's pretty songs were creeping me out in a way that doesn't quite seem intended. It's an example of Macy's difficulty with the film's tone, which veers uncertainly from melodramatic to broadly comic.
One comic element is an implausibly nerdy marina employee. Another is a slapstick set piece in which Sam disrupts a sailing regatta. With its "1812 Overture" musical cue, the sequence seems to allude to similar ones in the silly 1980 comedy Caddyshack. It's the wrong reference point for a film about material this grave.