“Rudderless” is a tragic quasi-musical that never quite finds its way. It drifts through a lot of tunes, some big name cameos, a big twist that you won’t swallow and a central relationship that is cute but trite and not for one moment believable.
But William H. Macy’s directing debut shows us just how beloved this actor’s actor is, with all the folks he was able to talk into dropping in for a scene, a day or a couple of days. The fact that most of these “star turns” suck the wind out of the movie’s sails suggests maybe he shouldn’t have called all these favors in for one film.
Billy Crudup plays Sam, the divorced advertising wizard whose son misses an impromptu dinner invitation because he was caught up in a mass shooting at his college. Hounded by TV reporters from the funeral onward, Sam drops out.
And how do guys drop out in the movies? He ditches the Architectural Digest home and the Audi and moves onto a sailboat, a 35-foot center-cockpit cutter. Yeah, this sort of thing really happens. But in the movies, it’s a cliche.
Sam rides a bike to his job painting houses. He hits the liquor stores or bars on the way home. He’s taken a shine to boilermakers.
Then his ex-wife (Felicity Huffman), who has remarried and had another child, drops off his late son’s stuff. That’s where Sam discovers the kid’s music and starts to learn about the boy by learning and playing his songs. He plays them at a local bar’s perpetual open mic night.
And that’s where the eager mop-top guitarist Quentin (Anton Yelchin) hears them and introduces himself.
“I … wanted to say something earlier … but you look … scary.”
Quentin courts Sam so they can play together, and two guitarists is just the start of a band. But even after they start to get popular, the secretive Sam declines to say where the songs came from or who he really is.
For a movie ostensibly about mourning and grief, there is little in the script or Crudup’s performance that suggests that. That allows us to guess the direction this is headed long before this boat comes about and takes us there.
The bar, with Macy playing the owner, has impossibly talented “random” singers playing open mic, profane novelty-tune pixie Kate Micucci among them.
Yelchin’s Quentin is painfully shy, a kid with issues. But not when it comes to approaching the stranger with the Mumford-by-Way-of-Wilco songs, or performing.
No, they don’t call the band The Old Man and the Three. But they think about it.
And Laurence Fishburne plays the crusty music store owner who’s in their corner.
Macy has spent much of his recent career in indie films, so it’s no surprise he chose to try commanding his own ship. But in nautical terms, “Rudderless” has too much canvas up, too much story to settle on a convincing tone, too many players to give everybody a role worth their trouble.
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