It’s a nice touch that Marshall Lewy’s indie drama California Solo is set a couple of hours outside of Los Angeles, on a small organic farm, because the literal geography establishes the main character’s biographical geography. Robert Carlyle plays a former Scottish rock star who drives into the city once a week to sell the vegetables he helps grow, and every time he’s in the general vicinity of show business, he’s reminded of what he’s lost. Carlyle does keep a toe in the music world, via a podcast called Flameouts, in which he recounts the stories of famous musicians’ deaths. But even that is indicative of his situation: not on the radio or on TV, but consigned to the outskirts of the mass media. And it doesn’t help that Carlyle recently got busted for DUI, which—coupled with an old drug charge from his rocker days—is threatening to get him deported from the country he’s called home for the past dozen years.
California Solo doesn’t have much story. All of the details above are established in the first five minutes, then the movie becomes a character sketch, carried by its wealth of detail and a fantastic Carlyle performance. Visually, the film is unremarkable, and Lewy’s overall approach holds doggedly to the exhaustingly earnest Amerindie style, complete with moody soundtrack and quiet scenes of people parceling out their backstories. Lewy knows this character and his world well, though, and when Carlyle rants about Marc Bolan on his podcast, or tries to sell a guitar once owned by Paul Weller to people who’ve never heard of The Jam, it reinforces the idea that Carlyle has left behind a career where even the legends fade more with each generation. California Solo peaks with the scene where Carlyle records the Flameouts episode about his own band, describing his brother’s death in a rivetingly angry, self-pitying monologue.
Eventually though, the lack of any real narrative drive catches up to California Solo, which in its last third stumbles through clichéd scenes of Carlyle going on drinking binges, while trying to make amends to and beg favors from the friends and family he’s disappointed during his decade in exile. It’s too bad Lewy (and Carlyle, who executive-produced the film) couldn’t find more to do with the hero. Even when he’s idling, there’s something touching about this self-described “moderately lazy Scot” who tries to keep his house in order, but finds that when he gets in trouble, his house is way too “wee.”