Review: Billy Crudup shines in William H. Macy’s ‘Rudderless’

It's funny, but if you asked me to list my favorite actors, it would take me a while to get to Billy Crudup.
Probably that's Crudup has made some strange, but often admirable, career choices and has occasionally vanished in the background in the sort of paycheck roles I wouldn't begrudge him for a second.
However, when I think back on Crudup's body of work, he's given some performances that I consider to be all-time classics.
“Almost Famous,” for example, doesn't work without Crudup's passionate, mercurial Golden God Russell Hammond. In a perfect world, Crudup would have picked up an Oscar nod for “Almost Famous.” He did not. Instead, his highest profile acting honor is an Independent Spirit nomination for “Jesus' Son,” a cult classic in which he gets astounding comedic mileage from some very dark material, etching one of cinema's best and most unique depictions of drug addiction. And although I may be a party of one on the movie, Crudup's commitment in Robert Towne's underrated “Without Limits” never ceases to impress me.
He's done decent work since then, but perhaps the reason I don't include Crudup among my favorite actors is because his last great performance — unless you were a fan of his radioactive blue super-wang in “Watchmen” — was all the way back in 2000.
That's no longer true. 
“Rudderless,” one of the Closing Night films of the 2014 Sundance Film Festival represents a confident directing debut for William H. Macy and gives Crudup his best role in years. The actor responds with a performance that's funny, heartbreaking and confidently musical, anchoring a film with a challenging and sometimes shaky premise that very much requires his steadying presence.
More on “Rudderless” after the break.
Describing “Rudderless” is a problem. 
Sketching the plot in the loosest possible way, the script by Macy, Casey Twenter and Jeff Robison is about former advertising executive Sam (Crudup) whose life falls apart after the death of his college-aged son (“Parenthood” vet Miles Heizer, memorable in a tiny role). In two years of self-medicating with booze and frozen pizza, he goes from a clean-cut professional with an architecturally snazzy home to directionless housepainter living in a boat on an Oklahoma lake. [Yes, he's literally adrift and perhaps literally rudderless, which is a not-so-wee-bit on the nose, if such things bother you.]
Sam's redemption-of-sorts comes when he finds recordings of his son's songs and begins playing them, eventually forming a band with nervous donut maker  and son-proxy Quentin (Anton Yelchin). Claiming the songs as his own, Sam is able to turn his life around, but there are secrets floating around that could make a mess of everything.
I want to say as little as possible about the specifics of the plot, which include one minor twist early on that other critics will, I assume, have no problems with spoiling, plus a major twist that nobody should be ruining. It's part of the interesting “This isn't exactly the movie you think it is” bait-and-switch of “Rudderless” and keeping the details fuzzy would go a long way towards allowing viewers to go along on the emotional journey, so I'm not ruining things for you. However, the movie's reveals put “Rudderless” in a precarious position, since some viewers will find it to be a major dramatic overreach and I would also accept the opinion that “Rudderless” buries some serious stuff that requires depth and tact in a movie that isn't designed to go quite as dark as it needs to.
Because of his status as the Emmy-winning writer of telefilms like “Door to Door,” I'd gotten it in my head that Macy had directed previously. He had not. Still, it isn't even slightly surprising that “Rudderless,” for whatever problems it may have, shows no ill-effects of inexperience. In his  day job on Showtime's “Shameless,” Macy gets to be a part of a show that toggles between extremely broad comedy and utterly grounded pathos and I think that gave him the confidence to attempt a lot of what's happening in “Rudderless,” which is the story of a father grieving his late son, but also includes lots of drunken physical comedy, plus the upbeat musical joy you'd expect from a making-a-band story. While certain things have rubbed me the wrong way thinking on them afterwards, in the process of watching I wasn't jarred by any of the transitions.
With all of the actors doing their own singing and playing — rockers Ben Keweller and Ryan Dean add authenticity, if not acting chops, as members of  Sam and Quentin's band — the musical elements work well. The songs mostly come from SolidState (Simon Steadman and Charlton Pettus) and they're all plausible entries in a singer-songwriter catalogue. If the SolidState songs are occasionally just a bit too polished for their provenance within the story, Yelchin and Crudup add just enough roughness. And Macy has fun with the conventions of the genre, right down to an enthusiastically handled “Look, we're becoming stars” montage.
As I already made clear, “Rudderless” is Crudup's movie. As we know from his resume, Crudup is as good as it gets when playing impaired, almost always making choices that are unexpected and manage to be funny without minimizing the depth of intoxication. Here, you see Sam's self-destructive streak, but you also never doubt the spark he gets from playing music and also restoring his connection to his son. Crudup is excellent with Yelchin and great in his couple scenes with Felicity Huffman, who plays his ex-wife in a role that I wish could have been expanded by a couple scenes. Actually, Yelchin's character also seems to have had a couple key beats trimmed from the final cut. 
Crudup benefits from terrific sequences with Laurence Fishburne, who is so loose and funny here I half-expected him to be credited as “Larry.” [If I'm praising performances, I'd also give a nod to Oklahoma chanteuse Chelsey Cope, who only has a small role, but that was enough to make me spend 15 minutes this evening watching her sing on YouTube. She's good.]
Perhaps trying o convince distributors that it will have young-skewing appeal, “Rudderless” is also touting appearances by Jamie Chung and Selena Gomez. I know Chung has one line of dialogue, but she may not have two, which makes her fourth billing one of those very, very strange pieces of Hollywood contractual silliness. Gomez gets the “with” credit (Fishburne earns the “and”) and at least she has three scenes, but after an good first appearance as the late son's grieving girlfriend, she becomes a plot-advancer and little more. It's nice that Chung and Gomez both got to visit Park City and that they got this little bit of indie cred on their resumes, but I pity any viewer who watches “Rudderless” for either of them.
I wish I could tell you what “Rudderless” is actually about, because the last couple scenes hinge on the assumption that you haven't checked out entirely at a key point. I raised my eyebrow with some skepticism at how the movie's pathos goes from “earned” to “maybe unsustainable,” but I never checked out entirely. Most of the credit there goes, for the last time in this review, to Crudup, but also to the catchy-and-sincere songs. And I guess credit goes to Macy as well for being assured enough behind the camera that he's able to get away with some things that would have torpedoed most first-timers.
Other Sundance reviews:
“Fed Up”
“Love Child”
“Land Ho!”
“The Voices”
“Happy Valley”
“My Prairie Home”
“Web Junkie”