Even for a self-destructive burnt-out rock star, Lachlan MacAldonich (Robert Carlyle) is awfully alone. This heavy-drinking Scotsman is without a savior—no one to stand by and bear the consequences of his behavior to the very end, no one to leave him for his own good only to then return to him after he's realized the error of his ways. All of which becomes a problem when Lachlan, once the guitarist for a famous Britpop band called the Cranks and now a manager on a farm just outside Los Angeles, gets pulled over for drunk driving and, because of an old drug charge, is threatened with deportation unless he can find someone in the U.S. who'd suffer "extreme hardship" from his absence.
It's a setup rife with possibility for heartwarming family reconnections (Lachlan has a wife and child he rarely sees in L.A.) or budding romance (Beau, the cute girl who buys vegetables from Lachlan every week at the farmer's market, seems like a prime candidate). But from the beginning it's clear that any "extreme hardship" as a result of Lachlan leaving the country will only arise after a sudden, unexpected proclamation of love or from an outright false testimony. And it says a lot about California Solo that you don't automatically assume writer-director Marshall Lewy will resort to such quick and cheap solutions.
Lachlan is a man-child, wanker, loving and manipulative father, and endearing nostalgic, and Carlyle beautifully weaves together all of the character's multitudes. His performance compensates for the film's less successful elements and even makes you wonder if they might be strengths. The subplots are under-realized, the secondary characters underwritten, yet Lachlan's fall—a slow crumble more than a collapse—remains engaging; the way Lewy lets us flounder along with the man sometimes feels like a savvy artistic choice.
Still, for the most part, California Solo can't keep pace with its main character. Carlyle draws nuance from Lachlan's struggle, but other aspects of the film, such as Lachlan's "Flame Outs" podcast about the tragic deaths of rock stars, are too on the nose. And if a lack of substantial characters around Lachlan increases our focus on him, it also makes the film too tightly framed. Lachlan's environment and past are not nearly as convincing as he is and so we're left with a fascinating profile of a man amid a muddled, unsatisfying context.