William H. Macy’s directorial debut has a lot of promise. Billy Crudup plays the lead, a man grieving the loss of his son in a shooting on a college campus. After discovering a bunch of songs that his son wrote, he starts to learn them and perform them in a local bar in a search for redemption. Crudup is really very, very good; he’s an actor I like a lot, but he rarely gets lead roles, so it’s nice to see him get a role he can really sink his teeth in. Anton Yelchin, a fine young actor, is also very good as an awkward young man that pushes Crudup’s character to let him perform with him. In a film like this, a lot depends on the quality of the music and the songs here are consistently really good; there’s only one musical sequence where the song isn’t good and a couple of them are genuinely great songs. Unfortunately, the film ultimately fails because of some very ill advised decisions. I’m going to recommend against this movie, so I’m going to go ahead and drop some spoilers.
About halfway through the film, you find out that Crudup’s son wasn’t a victim in the shooting; he was, in fact, the perpetrator (though he did die, having shot himself in the aftermath). This is a problem in a couple of ways; we actually see the boy on screen for a bit at the start of the film and, while I don’t want to say there’s only one type of person that is capable of doing a school shooting, it just doesn’t ring true that the character we see did the shooting. Secondly, it feels cheap to shoe-horn in such a deep subject. The exploration of what it’s like to be the parent of a child that does monstrous things is an exploration that needs to happen, but this movie just kind of backhands it into what has, to that point, seemed to be an emotionally cathartic musical. The film also includes a lot of really stupid, pretty juvenile humor which seems very out of place, once you realize what the story is actually about. In short, it just feels really cheap, this inclusion of something so serious in such an after-thought kind of way.
And then the film takes an annoying moralizing turn in which the film argues that it’s somehow immoral and “wrong” for songs this kid wrote to be sung because he was a murderer. I mean, okay, he was a murderer. But the bulk of this film takes place a few YEARS after the shooting, which seems like a fair amount of time for society as a whole to have moved on to some new atrocity. But people with no connection at all to the shooting are just ******* SCANDALIZED, just SHOCKED, that Crudup would dare to perform songs his son wrote. I mean, HOW DARE YOU? Crudup is actually beaten up because of it, by someone with no personal connection to the shooting at all, more than three years after the shooting. This seems way, way melodramatic to me. Plus, it isn’t just that characters in the film think it’s wrong; the film itself thinks it’s wrong. Crudup’s journey in the last twenty to thirty minutes is finally realizing that yes, it was immoral of him to play the songs. To which I say a great big “screw you, movie.” I just loathe this argument that we should only experience art made by people that have been good people their whole lives. For one thing, if you do that, you miss some of the frigging best art ever made. I suppose because I think adultery is wrong, I’m supposed to never listen to any songs John Lennon wrote. Or never watch a Polanski film again or a Woody Allen film. Or read books by Kipling because he was racist. It’s ludicrous and it just infuriates me that people can’t understand that you separate the art from the artist. Art is ultimately about you, the audience, and not the artist, who was, I believe, inspired by some genius that was separate from the bad things he or she did. Anyway, the kid killed some people; a great song is still a great song and I’m double blasted if I’m going to let some movie preach at me about what kind of art I can and can’t enjoy based on the artist’s private life, which has nothing to do with the art they produced.
What’s really annoying is that none of this needed to be in the movie. For the first hour or so, the film is a solid, if occasionally clichéd, story about a father finding closure and catharsis by connecting with his son through the music he produced before he died. It’s a great hook for a movie and a bit different than a lot of the grief based movies I’ve seen. The music is good and Crudup and Yelchin are both really good. This is, I’m trying to say, a movie by itself. There’s no reason to shoe-horn in a twist that’s kind of exploitative and then preach a message that is extremely offensive to me as a lover of art. It’s just a shame that Crudup’s performance in particular was wasted in such an infuriating and awful movie. Ultimately, I’m going to very definitely recommend against seeing this movie. The strength of the performances and the music pulls it up from a strongly recommended against, but still I’m going to let it find its balance at an average ranking. Recommended against. 2 stars.
tl;dr – Crudup’s fine performance and solid music can’t save this film when it turns preachy, pretentious and infuriatingly moralistic. 2 stars.