Release Date: Dec. 16
Director: Scott Cooper
Writer: Thomas Cobb (novel), Cooper (screenplay)
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Maggie Gyllenhaal
Cinematographer: Barry Markowitz
Studio: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Jeff Bridges’ performance as country singer Bad Blake in Crazy Heart arrives with “preordained best actor frontrunner” written all over it, thanks to the pundits whose business it is to phone the two or three Academy members they know every five minutes and keep us abreast of the shifting breezes in Bel Air. This kind of attention is both blessing and curse: Blessing in that it’ll actually draw a significant audience to a modest “music movie” (to invoke the least commercial of genres) which was rumored to be headed for home video before cooler and more Oscar-minded heads prevailed. The curse comes in how difficult it may be to get lost in the pleasures of his characterization without thinking, “Oh, that’ll make a nice clip on the Globes,” if you suffer from awards-season ADHD like me.
Fortunately, Bridges’ Bad is so good that you might even forget to think about the actor’s impending mano-a-mano with Morgan Freeman for a few minutes. In the spirit of down-on-his-luck-warbler film antecedents like Tender Mercies and Payday, Crazy Heart has Bad Blake bottoming out both career-wise and whiskey-wise. He’s headlining New Mexico bowling alleys—the country-movie equivalent of Spinal Tap opening for the puppet show, but with fewer malfunctioning props and more vomit involved. (Singer/songwriter Ryan Bingham shows up for an amusing cameo in these early scenes as the leader of Bad Blake’s bowling-alley pickup band.) Things pick up, a little, when he moves on to a gig at an actual bar, and then they pick up a lot when he commits to a pre-show interview with aspiring local reporter Maggie Gyllenthal, whose journalistic way with a legend is sure as hell going to ruin it for the rest of us four-eyed music scribes. Thank God Editor & Publisher magazine folded right before they were put in a position of having to examine the potential conflicts of interest that arise from this interviewer/interviewee situation, as Bad Blake soon enough has Maggie to help him make it through the night…and becomes a truly Bad babysitter to her young son.
It’s the age-old theme: How can a loser ever win? Will the love of a good woman redeem a rapscallion, or is the bottom of the bottle a more alluring mirage? One of the nicest things about the movie is its near-total lack of an antagonist, other than alcohol and/or Bad Blake’s fateful mixture of pride and low self-esteem, either one of which prove antagonistic enough. Writer-director Scott Cooper keeps setting up characters and situations which look like they might be our hero’s undoing, then avoids ever getting that simple-minded. The most obvious potential adversary is a hot young country superstar played by Colin Farrell (!), who made it big off what he learned about the business from Bad Blake, not to mention having had his first smash with one of Blake’s songs. For a minute, it seems like Crazy Heart may be about to turn into a twangy remake of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, with the older, washed-up singer bitter about how the young protégé ripped off his identity as well as his tune on the way to the top. But if you’re expecting Farrell to do some satirical impression of a Kenny Chesney-type star, the movie doesn’t go there, instead making Farrell’s character a decent singer and warm, grateful human being in his own right. Even the character of Bad Blake’s manager, who looks early on to be a caricature of a non-goyim Hollywood sharpie, turns out to be a pretty good guy. The film is just too gentle for parody or villainy.
And that leaves us with Bad Blake as his own worst enemy…which is like meat to a hungry Rottweiler for an actor of Bridges’ ability. Again, a very gentle Rottweiler, because Bridges stops well short of the scenery-chewing that often comes with playing a drunk. He’s ace at playing a rambling and cantankerous but still very functional drunk, and again, it’s to the movie’s credit that it doesn’t give us the scene you might be dreading where Blake screws up his Big Comeback Moment by overimbibing beforehand. He does mess up, big time, in his off hours, but when he’s performing, aside from that one vomitorious early moment, the man is able to make his way around a stage, in a way that feels true to the perpetually intoxicated show-biz pros we all know and sort of love.
If only the film were able to maintain that delicate balance all the way through… but that might involve irresolution. An ending there must be, and so Blake must face some dramatic offstage moments that lead him to the doorsteps of AA. And suddenly this character who is supposed to be so incorrigible and such a brilliant songwriter is suddenly repeating the mantra “One day at a time,” and not even in a sarcastic way, as I first suspected. Even while strenuously avoiding too feel-good of an ending, the final stretch just feels… too… good, in a way that feels more audience research-mandated than character-mandated. (The film is known to have gone through some studio recutting, so it’s hard to know how much of its final fuzziness was the director’s doing and how much was imposed upon him.)
But even with a disappointing final reel, Crazy Heart still has just enough craziness and messiness about it to feel honest to the side of the music business that’s just a little closer to Skid Row than Music Row. And no one’s doing an impersonation here, which helps, since Bridges doesn’t have to carry the weight Joaquin Phoenix did in Walk the Line. Bridges looks like a ringer for Kris Kristofferson, especially when he takes his shirt off, but there’s not much Kris in the character, who’s a little more Billy Joe Shaver writing the songs of Townes Van Zandt—as channeled by T Bone Burnett and the late Stephen Bruton, who co-penned almost all the original material (save for a couple Ryan Bingham contributions). Burnett has said that, by making Farrell’s superstar singer actually halfway decent, this movie takes place in an “alternate universe” of country music, where things went a different way after the ‘60s or ‘70s, which apparently involved the singer/songwriter strain trumping the pop-crossover strain. Would that it were so. But let’s be thankful we still live in the real universe where Jeff Bridges is one of our very best major actors and, as a cherry on top of that, arguably our most likeable.