Crazy Heart (United States, 2009)December 16, 2009
Crazy Heart is the country music version of The Wrestler: a grizzled veteran whose days in the spotlight are behind him struggles to keep going while seeing the world through a haze of regret and booze. The story is unremarkable; the alcoholic coming to terms with an addiction and striving to overcome it has provided the framework for everything from compelling cinema to maudlin made-for-TV movies. What elevates Crazy Heart is the remarkable performance of Jeff Bridges. The Oscar buzz about Bridges, which began to build slowly before reaching a critical mass when Fox Searchlight decided to go to bat for him, is driving this production. Not to take anything away from Bridges' co-star, Maggie Gyllenhaal, or supporting performers Robert Duvall and Colin Farrell, but everything that is compelling about Crazy Heart is filtered through Bridges. He, more than the story or the direction of first-time filmmaker Scott Cooper or T-Bone Burnett's country/western songs, is the reason to set aside two hours to watch this.
Bridges is Bad Blake, a washed up country singer who has fallen so far down the entertainment ladder from his one-time A-list perch that there are no more letters to describe the rung where he currently dangles. He tours the southwest stopping in bowling alleys and bars to do sets primarily because he needs the money but also because, without the gigs, he'd have nothing to do with his life. His means of transportation is a beat-up pickup truck and his rare moments of sobriety are confined to the early mornings. During one song, he walks off stage and out the back door to throw up in a garbage can. Bad has a booster in hot young country star Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), but he's too proud and stubborn to accept Tommy's extended helping hand. Tommy views Bad as his mentor; Bad sees Tommy as an upstart who left him in the dust on the way to the top.
Bad's love life is defined by a long line of one night stands, typically with women whose names he doesn't know and whose faces he can't remember. That changes, however, with Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a journalist he meets in Santa Fe. Inexplicably, she's as attracted to him as he is to her and they embark upon a relationship. For Bad, there's something extra in being with Jean than the opportunity to interact with an intelligent, independent woman. She has a four-year old son, Buddy (Jack Nation), who is the age that Bad's child was when the singer abandoned him a quarter of a century ago. Spending time with Buddy allows him to live out the illusion of being a father, and he contemplates making contact with his now-adult son. But the specter of Bad's alcoholic tendencies hangs like a pall over his every action, and one senses it's only a matter of time before he screws things up.
When one considers show business, the sad truth is that there are more Bad Blakes than there are Tommy Sweets. Bad's chosen genre is country/western, but he's like those once-popular rock 'n roll stars from the '60s playing half-empty venues while singing long-forgotten Top 40 hits and drowning their sorrows in booze. Bad's story is not unique. In fact, it's a near-perfect cliché, right down to the neglected son and the chance at a fresh start. The pattern is pretty much the same one we saw Mickey Rourke's character navigate during the course of The Wrestler (which, overall, was a better scripted motion picture). At least this movie ends on a note that is less nihilistic.
Considering his longevity, popularity, and ability, it's hard to believe Bridges has never won an Oscar. This should represent his fifth nomination and second as a leading man (he was previously one of the Chosen Five in 1985 for Starman). As has so often been the case throughout his career, Bridges becomes the character. He buries himself so thoroughly in the role that there's nothing of the actor remaining. At times, he more closely resembles Nick Nolte and Kris Kristofferson than Jeff Bridges. Yet this is the same guy who has a secondary part in The Men Who Stare at Goats. Bridges can also sing, which is an important qualification for playing Bad Blake, since the guy was once a top country star. The actor's intensity is unflagging, his attention to detail exacting. He gets everything right, from the slow, shambling gait of someone carrying around more weight than his 57 years to the dead look in his eyes - the mark of someone who has given up. Yet, on those occasions when he picks up a guitar and lets his fingers dance across the strings, some vestige of who he once was is awakened. The other actors in Crazy Heart do their jobs, including Maggie Gyllenhaal (as the obligatory love interest) and Robert Duvall, who is on hand primarily for his name (his part is inconsequential), but they are merely in low orbits around Bridges. This is his film.
Crazy Heart is a labor of love for many of those involved. Duvall's participation will cause many to invoke the title of Tender Mercies (there are similarities), and he matches his on-screen appearance with an off-screen producer credit - something he shares with Bridges. For his part, Cooper, an actor by trade, wrote, directed, and produced the movie. Until about a month ago, no one had heard of Crazy Heart and Bridges' interpretation of Bad was the best performance of 2009 no one had seen. Now, with Fox Searchlight's push to get the movie into the light, it's possible this could turn into the best performance of 2009 that Oscar voters will see.
Crazy Heart (United States, 2009)
Cast: Jeff Bridges, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jack Nation, Robert Duvall, Colin Farrell
Screenplay: Scott Cooper, based on the novel by Thomas Cobb
Cinematography: Barry Markowitz
Music: Stephen Bruton, T-Bone Burnett
U.S. Distributor: Fox Searchlight