“Somewhere between pleasant and innocuous” is not a description one would — or should — expect to apply to a movie whose narrative is triggered by a school massacre. But that pretty well defines “Rudderless,” toplining Billy Crudup as a grieving father who gets a new lease on life playing his late son’s music. At least, it does until a late plot revelation tips William H. Macy’s directorial debut in a more serious direction that his script (co-penned with Casey Twenter and Jeff Robison) is very poorly equipped to handle. Result is somewhat baffling in retrospect, if actually rather bland and formulaic to watch. Official Sundance closer may score some theatrical exposure, though being neither quite mainstream crowdpleaser nor offbeat indie, it will likely play best on cable.
Divorced advertising executive Sam (Crudup) is expecting to meet his only child, Josh (Miles Heizer), when news arrives that someone has run amok with a gun at the boy’s university. Inconsolable over his loss, Sam escapes by taking a liquid vacation that clearly hasn’t ended yet when we next meet him two years later. He’s now living as under-the-radar as possible on a sailboat docked at a small-town marina, working as a housepainter and ingratiating himself with the locals by taking a leisurely public pee every morning in full view of a lakeside restaurant.
He’s initially irked when his ex-wife (Felicity Huffman), eager to start a new life herself, unloads many of Josh’s belongings on him, including home recordings the youth made of his own original songs. Sam is so struck by them that he strums guitar and sings one himself at a local bar’s open-mike night. This gains the pesky attention of Quentin (Anton Yelchin), a socially challenged aspiring musician who pleads and whimpers like a begging puppy until Sam agrees to play with him. Seemingly moments later, Quentin has formed a whole band (with established indie rockers Ben Kweller and Ryan Dean cast as bassist and drummer), four-part harmonies emerge on cue, and the quartet dubbed Rudderless has a regular packed Saturday-night gig.
Sam lets the others assume he wrote the songs himself, presumably because telling the truth would be too painful. He’s reluctant about the whole business, while caving to Quentin’s enthusiasm and his own undeniable pleasure in performing. (We never get any backstory explaining Sam’s practiced musical chops and stage ease.) All this is amiable enough, the rather generic sensitive-boy-rock sounds included, albeit about as credible as the rise of the Carrie Nations in “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.”
Then, in its last half-hour, the pic drops a bombshell that provides the required third-act crisis, but is so overscaled, given the generally middleweight tenor, it constitutes a bewildering error in narrative judgment. Suffice to say that this twist suddenly turns “Rudderless” into a movie with a gaping hole that it seems uninterested in even trying to illuminate; the missing intel becomes so conspicuous that it just about invalidates the entire premise.
Crudup does a lot to keep things watchable, playing with a slightly acidic wryness that suggests the character’s humor has only been heightened by his grieving hopelessness. There’s also a pleasing turn from Laurence Fishburne as a local music-shop proprietor. Yelchin oversells the nervous-geek act at first, but ultimately does well in an underwritten role. Other perfs are just OK, with Selena Gomez underwhelming in a couple of scenes as the dead son’s ex-g.f., and Macy casting himself as a bar owner — a curious decision, since the script gives him little to do and he seems atypically disinterested doing it.
Most songs are written by Simon Steadman (formerly of Britpop group Steadman) and Charlton Pettus, otherwise known as duo SolidState. Their work is solid, accessible, very oughties emo-type pop, but without a whiff of originality, and with lyrics that ultimately ill serve the story. The actors play their own instruments, though the illusion of live performance is sometimes belied by a heavily produced sound.
Shot in Oklahoma, the production is solidly pro all around, but as a director there’s not much one can say about Macy here beyond noting an earnest, middle-of-the-road, borderline-hokey approach in both style and tone.