A man who’s down on his luck looks for redemption when a time of need arises in his life – will a new love interest save him, or will the gained love of his estranged daughter do the trick? Sounds like The Wrestler, right? We can all dream, but this scenario also describes the plot of Marshall Lewy’s California Solo, in which Robert Carlyle is the man down on this luck – a washed up rocker facing possible deportation back to the UK. While Carlyle is effective in the lead, unlike The Wrestler, this overly derivative film never quite makes its protagonist likeable enough to root for. The film is also in desperate need of some levity to cut through its wholly depressing atmosphere.
Carlyle’s not-quite-likable musician is Lachlan, a Scot who is faced with deportation after many years in the States when he is charged with a DUI. Lachlan has spent the last four years as a manager at a farm and lives a simple life – a stretch from his past as a rock star, in the band that was helmed by his now-dead younger brother. He falls in “like” with a sexy younger woman, Beau (Alexia Rasmussen), who frequents his stand at the farmers market on weekends even though she is still involved with her DJ boyfriend Paul (Danny Masterson).
As he braces himself to be deported, Lachlan makes a last-ditch effort to reconnect with his ex-wife Catherine (Kathleen Wilhoite) and 14-year-old daughter Ari (Savannah Lathem) – not because he truly wants to, but because they might be able to help him stay in the country.
To a certain extent, the film hinges on whether or not the audience cares if Lachlan is redeemed by the end – and it’s near impossible to like this guy. He seeks to sell the guitar of his dead brother for profit, he is an aimless drunk, he goes after a woman that he knows is taken, he wants to reconnect with his family solely for his own gain… the list goes on. To his credit, Carlyle does what he can with the material. He is fully believable as the lanky, stringy-haired Lachlan, even when he sings a song from Lachlan’s one solo album, “California Solo.” He acts the hell out of his many drunk scenes and even seems to know how to make produce marketable. His acting ability really makes you wish that he had been given some better material here.
Toward the film’s end, you side completely with Lachlan’s naysayers – why would you ever consider helping someone who is only after you for selfish gain? In one particular scene, Lachlan comes hung over to meet his ex-wife and daughter after a near-11-year absence from their lives, and when his ex-wife refuses to sign a form that will claim she needs him to remain in the country, he just storms off. No, you don’t blame his ex-wife for refusing to help him, and you don’t care whether or not he stays in the country. Lachlan makes a series of bad decisions, and none of them are assuaged by any notable character pathos or development.
On a related note, the film very seldom lets up from its depressing tone. There are no “lighter” moments to lift your spirits from the doom and gloom of Lachlan’s impending deportation – no fun moments with his daughter (like in The Wrestler), no discernable romance. Just sad, lonely Lachlan waiting to hear back from lawyers with increasingly grim news of his fate. Sad, lonely Lachlan getting drunk in bars of trying to put the moves on his lady-of-choice. He even has a depressing podcast dedicated to the deaths of famous musicians. In order to be more watchable, this film needs a major injection of levity – perhaps another musical moment or some more interpersonal connection would have helped this a great deal. The monotony in mood also affects the pacing, to a certain extent, as this film feels stretches far beyond its otherwise tight 94-minute runtime.
Paul the DJ suggests to Lachlan that he appear at one of his sets for a Brit Pop night. This development hints, again, at a The Wrestler-style comeback. But seeing as Lachlan just shows up, gets drunk, and dances a bit, this is all very anticlimactic. California Solo borrows bits and pieces of the “redemption flick,” but doesn’t follow through to squeeze out the maximum emotional depth from a rather simply plotted character study. Same for the reconnection with his family – this only happens at a lunch and doesn’t advance far beyond that. He starts a romance, but never even kisses her. This movie has been made before – many times – and has been made a lot better and a lot more effectively.
The film also features Steven Soderbergh-lite cinematography – while it looks okay, we’ve seen this golden-hued sort of indie before, and it’s just so noticeably derivative and makes you wish that the director just picked a different color to tint the film with. This, in addition to the plot, is just another aspect of this film to make it blend into the indie film scape, with barely a ripple in sight. This one could have been directed by anyone – there is no discernible artistic stamp.
Overall, Carlyle’s Lachlan is a “broken down piece of meat” – but you don’t particularly care if he puts himself back together.
The Upside: Robert Carlyle does deliver a great performance in this film…
The Downside: …however, his character is not exactly likeable, so you never root for him to succeed. Also, the cinematography is derivative, and the plot is consistently a downer.
On the Side: Recognize that paunchy guy who works in the guitar store? Yes, indeed – that’s Mr. Matthews from Boy Meets World (William Russ).