“California Solo” is a laid-back character study about a has-been musician. The film, written and directed by Marshall Levy, takes the form of a redemption song. When Lachlan MacAldonich (Robert Carlyle, who starred in “The Full Monty” and “Priest”) is first introduced, the former Britpop performer is doing a podcast called “Flame-Outs.” He narrates stories of the “tragic, sometimes spectacular deaths of great musicians.”
Lachlan is a flame-out himself, of course. While he did not die young like his band-mate brother Jed, Lachlan is now out of the music business almost completely. After failing in going it alone on an album called “California Solo,” he is managing an organic farm a few hours from Los Angeles.
Lachlan also has a serious drinking problem, caused no doubt by the regrets that we come to understand over the course of the film. In its opening moments, he is pulled over by a cop for an aggravated DUI. The event has unexpected consequences –– though the Scotsman has a green card, he now faces deportation because of prior legal troubles for drug possession.
Watching Carlyle — who shows a world-weariness on his hangdog face throughout “California Solo” — suffer as a self-destructive man forms the backbone of this modest film. When Lachlan tries to raise money from his former manager (Michael des Barres) to pay his mounting legal bills, he is dismissed. He later swallows his pride and tracks down his ex-wife, Catherine (Kathleen Wilhoite), to ask for her help. He could stay in the country for reasons of “extreme hardship” if she is willing to make a claim that their teenage daughter, Arianwen (Savannah Lathem), who is estranged from her father, in fact needs him around. Catherine reluctantly agrees to discuss the situation with Lachlan.
These scenes work in showing the way Lachlan’s selfishness sabotaged his ability to maintain relationships, and he’s apparently not learned much. He abuses the goodwill of his long-suffering co-worker Warren (A Martinez) and demonstrates little patience for his lawyers and their efforts to resolve his legal problems.
The only bright spot in Lachlan’s life is the attention he gets from Beau (Alexia Rasmussen), a customer at the organic farm stand. Their relationship, however, is neither compelling nor convincing. They meet for drinks and dinner and even spend a night together, but nothing sexual develops. The suggestion that their bond is based on Beau’s sadness over a breakup with her boyfriend is never pursued. Beau could be an appealing character, but her interest in Lachlan is never fully explained. The romantic tension between the two proves an annoying dead-end for the audience.
The film’s real drama stems from the money and legal issues that hang over Lachlan like the Sword of Damocles. These problems point up the deeper truths that inform his character. His reluctance to return home to the UK or to consider selling the Les Paul guitar his brother used provides nice touches subtly conveyed.
Does Lachlan deserve sympathy? His friends seem to think so, but “California Solo” also emphasizes his bad behavior. Against his lawyer’s advice, he continues driving and binge drinking, as well as treating his friends and family badly and skipping work. Levy challenges the idea that Lachlan can ever find redemption.
“California Solo” works best when Lachlan is drunk and self-pitying, giving a confessional podcast about brother Jed or going on a bender. Carlyle gives a committed performance and these scenes are painful to watch. The actor is also soulful when he sings to Beau one night and has a touching exchange with Arianwen late in the film.
But too often Lachlan’s bad decisions, which should be heartbreaking, are instead merely frustrating to watch. A strong central performance by Carlyle and fine supporting turns by Martinez and Wilhoite are not enough to help “California Solo” avoid missing the mark.
CALIFORNIA SOLO | Directed by Marshall Levy | Strand Releasing | Opens Nov. 30 | Quad Cinema | 34 W. 13th St. | quadcinema.com