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Review: 'Rudderless' is an earnest but dodgy look at the grieving process

William H. Macy makes his theatrical feature film debut with "Rudderless," a jam-packed comedy-drama-musical about a father (Billy Crudup) grieving his son.

Billy Crudup plays a grieving father who takes up music in "Rudderless." Credit: J.R. Cooke, Samuel Goldwyn Films Billy Crudup plays a grieving father who takes up music in "Rudderless."
Credit: J.R. Cooke, Samuel Goldwyn Films

‘Rudderless’
Director: William H. Macy
Stars: Billy Crudup, Anton Yelchin
Rating: R
2 (out of 5) Globes

There are four or five movies smashed into “Rudderless,” which begins with a school shooting, turns into a grief drama, which then adds a buddy comedy element, plus a musical one. It’s not boring; there are hairpin twists, plus one actual, shocking, very heavy third act revelation that may not have been necessary and which it can’t remotely handle. It would seem cynical — the perfect Sundance movie, at which festival it premiered — if it wasn’t also nakedly earnest. It’s almost likable despite trying hard to be so, and despite trying so hard in general.

But first to the school shooting: Billy Crudup is Sam, one of those high-powered movie businessmen who has a change of heart, if, alas, because his son died in a Virginia Tech-style school shooting. Having reinvented himself as a surly loner living on a boat in a small town, he’s at first reluctant to look at his boy’s personal effects. When he does anyway he finds a pile of CD-Rs, which contain reams of sensitive singer-songwriter-type songs. Rather than trying to drink away his memories, he winds up learning the songs and playing them at open-mike nights, which draws the attention of Quentin (Anthon Yelchin), a splutteringly excitable aspiring musician.

Sam’s sour standoffishness contrasts nicely with the mega-earnest Quentin, who hounds him into starting a band, albeit one with three young dudes with scruffy hair plus one middle-aged guy. Crudup has always had an eccentric comic timing; even in dramas his face is always reacting in unpredictable, sometimes funny ways. He’s not always called on to exploit his considerable gifts, and can sometimes fade into the background when playing straight. The sarcastic, distant Sam gives him something to do, but he’s more there to elevate what can either be dodgy or simply plain material, which can be as painfully earnest as Quentin.

The director, actually, is William H. Macy, who files a tiny role as the guy who runs the open-mike night. He handles an ambitious jumble of tones, but not always good ones. The jokes that don’t involve Sam and Quentin’s odd couple pairing tend to be broad; Sam’s sometimes drunken behavior (and lack of an on-ship toilet) have enraged his neighbors, culminating in a set piece involving him literally crashing a snooty regatta while playing a guitar — an idea that might have seemed more amusing on the page but instead plays like “Caddyshack” slipped into “In the Bedroom.”

On the other side of the emotional spectrum, Crudup shares some scenes with Felicity Huffman, as his ex-wife. These strike an uneasy but productive balance between brittle and lived-in. This is a movie about someone who can’t express his pain in words, yet the scenes between these pros are so good that you wish it had been about them — or at least been less ambitious to recognize the things it’s actually good at.

Read our interviews with "Rudderless" director William H. Macy and costar Anton Yelchin.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

 

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