For some reason the gods of stardom have never quite knighted Billy Crudup, even though it could be argued Crudup has the looks, the chops and the charisma to match a Brad Pitt or a Tom Cruise.
Crudup seemed poised for stardom after his engaging performance as rock star Russell Hammond in Cameron Crowe’s “Almost Famous,” but that was nearly 15 years ago (how can that be!), and while Crudup has continued to find steady work, he never achieved the kind of stardom that would get a movie made or would get studio execs excited about the opening night grosses.
Regardless of Crudup’s ranking as a box-office draw, he’s every inch the movie star in “Rudderless,” a rather strange but engrossing film with one of the more jarring twists of any film in recent memory.
Directed and co-written by the great character actor William H. Macy, “Rudderless” features as much music — and it’s wonderful music — as “Almost Famous,” but this is a very different journey.
Crudup plays Sam, a successful advertising executive whose world falls apart after the tragic death of his son. Sam falls into a two-year abyss — losing his job and his home, drinking himself into oblivion and moving to a boat, where he spends his time annoying his neighbors and picking up odd jobs. (He lives on a boat, and he’s rudderless. Not the most subtle metaphor, but OK.)
Felicity Huffman (Macy’s real-life wife) plays Sam’s ex, who tracks him down and gives them a box of their son’s possessions, including his guitar, notebooks and some CDs of songs he recorded in his dorm room. At first, Sam wants nothing to do with the reminders of his beloved boy, but eventually he takes out the guitar and teaches himself to play the songs, which leads to an open-mic performance at a local pub, which leads an aspiring musician named Quentin (Anton Yelchin) to stalk Sam until Sam consents to Quentin forming a band to flesh out the songs.
Crudup, Yelchin and Ben Kweller perform songs written by Simon Steadman, Charlton Pettus and Ben Limpic, and the result is brilliant, indie-leaning pop-rock, with gorgeous arrangements, lovely lyrics and real heart. We believe it when the pub begins to fill up whenever the band is headlining, and we believe a record label would be interested in signing these guys.
Quentin’s father was a no-show from the moment the kid was born, and Sam is grieving for his son, who would be about Quentin’s age, so it’s easy to see why these two would develop a friendship beyond the music, with Sam mentoring Quentin and Quentin practically worshipping this cool older dude with the amazing song catalog. (There’s a reason Sam doesn’t tell his band mates about the real author of the songs, and it has nothing to do with Sam wanting to take the credit.)
In a subplot that really doesn’t have much to do with the story other than to provide some chuckles between the music and the heavy dramatic moments, Laurence Fishburne plays a local guitar-shop owner who apparently has been waiting behind the counter for years so he could instantly become Sam’s best friend. Selena Gomez — yes, Selena Gomez — also has some strong moments as the girl who was dating Sam’s son in college. And my only complaint about Macy’s work as the owner of the pub is he didn’t give himself a bigger part.
The third act of “Rudderless” might take your breath away. It’s a bold move, and it prompts us to rethink nearly everything that has transpired. Crudup has some of his finest moments as an actor, especially in a scene where he returns to the site of his son’s death.
This is one of the more memorable films of the year.
Samuel Goldwyn Films presents a film directed by William H. Macy and written by Macy, Casey Twenter and Jeff Robison. Running time: 105 minutes. Rated R (for language). Opens Friday at 600 N. Michigan and on demand.