Crazy Heart
Reviewed in January 2010 / Click Here to Comment
Director: Scott Cooper. Cast: Jeff Bridges, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Robert Duvall, Colin Farrell, Jack Nation, Tom Bower, Ryan Bingham, J. Michael Oliva, Rick Dial, Debrianna Mansini, James Keane, Anna Felix, Beth Grant. Screenplay: Scott Cooper (based on the novel by Thomas Cobb).

Photo © 2009 Fox Searchlight Pictures/Butcher's Run Films
Jeff Bridges figures out how to stand, walk, and move in Crazy Heart so that we know that he smells terrible. Based on the relative evidence of this film and Gran Torino, he's got a thing or two to teach onetime co-star Clint Eastwood about how to growl in your throat and rattle from your belly at regular intervals of a performance without just seeming absurd. Bridges fills the movie with lovely moments and depth charges: his disbelieving mirth when a store-owning fan gifts him a free bottle of his favorite whiskey, his fly hanging perpetually open in private and public places, his refusal to act bored singing the songs on which his character rode to glory many years before, because he can't help feeling affectionate toward his own crowning glories, even while his sun is obviously setting. Plus, we're clearly dealing with a character who's fond of repeating patterns. Bad Blake, the Bridges character, is one kind of nice when he's sober and another kind of nice when he's drunk, so neither the actor nor the film get stuck in the frequent, conflationary rut of approaching alcoholism as a duel between the forces of abiding tenderness and inebriated fury. And there is one sensational sequence, good enough to recall a raffish, couuntry-drawl cousin of Georgia if not quite its equal. This one comes when Colin Farrell, as a former protégé of Bridges's who is now a stratospheric star trading semi-openly on everything his mentor taught him, invites him to open for him at a major concert and then sneaks on stage to turn the old man's signature tune into an impromptu duet. The frequently docile or listless camera springs to roving life, and the relative weight within the scene of the performers to their audience, and of Bridges's Bad to Farrell's Tommy, feels excitingly unsettled. We aren't quite sure if Tommy is honoring, attacking, annoying, or rescuing his teacher, or if he doesn't think about any of those things and what we're seeing is just impulsive showmanship (though I doubt it). We don't know quite what Bad makes of this, either, and as often happens, he seems to shuffle through a few divergent reactions at once while basically holding the song together.

Crazy Heart finally disappoints because it's so manifestly a character in search of a movie, despite having an earlier life as a novel and now a second one as a filim script in which to draw out something, anything, like a persuasive story. Among three cliché-tempting alternatives, director and adapter Scott Cooper drops the promising threads of Bad and Tommy's uneasily fraught friendship and of the life of the songwriter as a second phase or subordinated role in the life of the celebrated singer. Instead, he gravitates toward a precipitous but unpromising romance between the dissolute, middle-aged Bad Blake and young Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal), an aspiring journalist in Santa Fe with a four-year-old son and a lot of experience, apparently, letting her excitements drown out her protective instincts. It's hard to imagine any young actor not leaping at the chance to play a two-hander character drama with Bridges, who lives each scene so freshly and with improvisatory surprises, even when the work stays as admirably low-key as his Bad Blake mostly is, give or take some wretched, sodden prayer-sessions at the bowl of the porcelain god. But Gyllenhaal, who lately keeps impersonating a more limited actress than the one she'd been embodying for five or six years, has a hard time looking ready to play this script as easily and loosely as Bridges does while still filling the quiet moments with minuscule, palpable details, and without dropping the crucial connections that will explain her character's dramatic reversals. She manages several times to be an interesting presence, but in her character's trajectory as in several arcs in the film, and nowhere more absurdly than in a truncated rehab stint that seems to last for one afternoon and two cups of sideboard coffee, Cooper seems to have excised key scenes of transition or character information, or just hustled precipitously and shallowly through his entire last act.

Possibly Cooper was loath to reprise the familiar scenes of romantic fracture and tentative reconnection to which the end of Crazy Heart is mostly given over; he at least givens them a quietly welcome new spin as the final scenes play out. But still, if your whole movie is as deeply familiar as Crazy Heart essentially is, it's even less likely that rushing through the compulsory beats of the narrative will seem like an original or even an adequate approach to that narrative. Nobody wants a movie that looks furtive about its own conventionality, one which comes across as doing a simple job rather badly, rather than elevating a slightly worn premise through precision and focus. The songs remain engaging, as performed live by Bridges with and without accompaniment in wholly believable clubs, arenas, bowling alleys, and bars, but there's not enough music here to allow it to anchor the film. Yet the narrative and protagonists veer so close to stock that the interpersonal drama never quite measures up to the clarity or nuance that the music, at its best, suggests. More precipitously, there is nothing in the second half of the movie, where the story beats all play like points on an outline (fragile acceptance, capricious lapse, near-disaster, bottoming-out, fragile redemption, etc.), to stand aside the fond, tangible gratitude that the yeoman musician feels upon stumbling upon a genuinely talented pianist in a Nowheresville bar. Or the early, uncomfortable scene as a tippling Bridges badly whiffs a song he has promised to perform for a particular audience member, but she barely seems to mind: the gesture of offering it up for her has already done the sentimental work, regardless of the execution. Something comparable may be in place for Crazy Heart: even beyond Bridges fans, who are certain to be satiated by this film, a core audience for gently hard-luck, small-scale dramas in the Tender Mercies vein never seems to dissipate. Recognizing a film that's so explicitly and warmly meant for them may be more important than how skillful or consistent the film actually is. But there's a particular aroma to a movie that's trying its best and keeps at least some spark of itself aglow till the end, but which nonetheless has bad habits of slurring or stumbling around when it really needs to hold things together. Grade: C

Academy Award Nominations and Winners:
Best Actor: Jeff Bridges
Best Supporting Actress: Maggie Gyllenhaal
Best Original Song: "The Weary Kind"

Golden Globe Nominations and Winners:
Best Actor (Drama): Jeff Bridges
Best Original Song: "The Weary Kind"

Other Awards:
Screen Actors Guild Awards: Best Actor (Bridges)
Independent Spirit Awards: Best Actor (Bridges); Best First Feature
Los Angeles Film Critics Association: Best Actor (Bridges); Best Original Score (T-Bone Burnett & Stephen Bruton)
Boston Society of Film Critics: Best Music

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