Like the songs at the heart of its story, Rudderless is a powerful yet incomplete artwork. Billy Crudup plays Sam, an advertising executive so focused on work that he doesn't even know his college-age son, Josh (Miles Heizer), is a prolific songwriter. Josh dies unexpectedly one morning, leaving behind a box of unproduced demos and half-finished lyrics. Two years, one ruined marriage, and a sea of alcohol later, Sam's ex-wife, Emily (Felicity Huffman), presents him with a box of Josh's things. The broken drunk, who now lives on a boat and paints houses to get by, takes up the mantle of performing his son's music at a local bar.
First-time feature director William H. Macy and co-writers Casey Twenter and Jeff Robison turn in a fine film that will likely remind seasoned viewers of other movies. The trouble is, Rudderless contains many glimpses of greatness that are undermined by ham-handedness and clichés. Anton Yelchin is the eager townie who latches on to Sam's music. Laurence Fishburne is the cranky guitar store owner who also slashes prices on sage advice. Sam doesn't tell anyone that the songs are not his, causing a second layer of trouble in the third act.
I've been sworn to secrecy as to the precise nature of that layer, which is a shame. What begins as a somewhat unique story of a dad's efforts to create both a connection to and a musical legacy for his estranged son quickly escalates to an entirely new level of mind-blowing moral dilemma for the audience. It's an elegant manipulation on the part of the filmmakers to give us key information about the characters only after we've become invested in them. By not allowing preconceptions to shade their story, Macy and company give us something to leave the film with, besides remarkable performances.
Crudup and Huffman are stellar here, in roles that could have been weepy, TV-movie stuff in lesser hands. They reminded me of Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart in Rabbit Hole, which covered similar territory (Rudderless substitutes folk-rock for crying and comics). Both sets of actors dial back and thus dial in on the universality of grief--which sometimes manifests as big emotions, but just as often comes out in wistful, resigned stares.
My only grievance against Rudderless (and it's a big one) is Macy's cloying need to balance out his weight-of-the-world themes with goofiness. I appreciate the desire to add levity (or just variety) to the proceedings, but everything that's not earnest drama just falls on its face--and nearly drags the rest of the picture with it. From Yelchin's Scrabby-Doo enthusiasm in the first part of the film (he mellows, thankfully, into a refreshingly low-key cadence later on), to the broadly drawn community of affluent boaters who form Sam's "neighborhood", Macy, Twenter, and Robison too often flee to the opposite end of the honesty spectrum when their movie threatens to get too heavy.*
The filmmakers stumble when they shy away from the raw and unflattering elements that make their movie so special. I'm reminded of Begin Again, which was also about lost souls finding musical inspiration in unexpected places. One film knows it's a comedy with dramatic undertones; the other is a drama that thinks it has to be funny. Ironically, Rudderless' greatest commentary on mourning may be the handful of ways it falls just short of realizing its full potential.
*Late in the film, Sam gets drunk and decides to "stick it to the man" by driving his boat through a regatta. While his neighbors are indeed stuffy, rich, and lame, their greatest crime appears to have been constantly reminding Sam not to pee off the side of his boat. Macy exalts this moment of boozy triumph in a way that recalls the end of One Crazy Summer, while earning neither our sympathies nor our cheers.