Of all the movie hybrids, William H. Macy’s feature directorial debut, Rudderless, is among the strangest, combining plot elements of the schlocky 1980s rock ‘n’ roll franchise Eddie and the Cruisers with that of somber grieving dramas like We Need to Talk About Kevin.
The result, despite a few stellar moments, is a not-quite-tragic-enough meditation on mourning and self-healing, crossed with a not-quite-gritty-enough portrait of indie rockers trying to break big. A fine Billy Crudup plays a once-successful businessman turned alcoholic, houseboat-dwelling recluse, shell-shocked after the sudden death of his college-aged singer-songwriter son.
At a dying open mic-bar a local teen (Anton Yelchin, in nattering Jesse Eisenberg mode) sees Crudup’s character perform one of the son’s many unreleased songs and then tries to convince him to start a band.. When Crudup isn’t reluctantly jamming with kids half his age, he’s being hounded by his ex-wife (Felicity Huffman) for not coping better with their loss. Macy and his co-writers, Casey Twenter and Jeff Robison, deserve accolades for putting together an indie folk band that is actually good (like Wilco without the whining).
They have a shrewd grasp on the enthusiastic, motley crowds that patronize small-town joints; the throngs vary wildly in age and get pumped up by such kitsch as a stomping punk version of “Wheels on the Bus.” But it’s puzzling why a talent like Macy bothered with a project that is so long on sentiment and short on comic relief — and unclear on what it wants to say on a variety of hot-button topics.