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Crazy Heart

Jeff Bridges makes this indie drama worth watching

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Three chords and the truth: Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges)
  • Three chords and the truth: Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges)

Country singer Bad Blake is a road warrior. Book him, and he'll be there: "I've played sick, drunk, divorced and on the run." 

But Blake is 57 years old, with his glory days long behind him. He headlines dinky bars and bowling alleys, backed by pick-up bands and politely applauded by fans as old as he is. Days, he sits behind the wheel of his '78 Suburban, hauling his meager set-up (guitar, amp, McLure's whiskey and a piss bottle) to the next gig; nights, he sprawls drunkenly across motel beds.

Then, in Santa Fe, he meets Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a winsome single mom who interviews him for the local paper. She spends the night, he makes breakfast ("Bad Blake's biscuits") -- and a connection is made. In Jean's company, Blake rounds up his better angels: He drinks less, gets re-inspired for song-writing and plays fun-time caretaker to her little boy. What follows are a few months of hard reckoning in Blake's broken-down life.

Despite its decades of popularity, they don't make many movies about country music. Twangy music is usually what's playing on the jukebox in the road-movie diner scene, and this film dips into that well, too. (Have you ever visited a liquor store where the radio is playing the Louvin Brothers?)

There's been the occasional bio-pic or vanity production featuring a current hitmaker. But few of these features probe deep, or depict anything other than country's patina of all-American wholesomeness. Altman's classic Nashville splits its interest with politics, and only the rare few have seen Rip Torn's unvarnished portrayal of life on the road in the deeply cynical Payday (1973).

I wish I could say Crazy Heart, adapted by Scott Cooper from Thomas Cobb's novel, expands the canon a bit. The film genuinely likes country music, and is wholly respectful, without resorting to a bunch of snap-button and yee-haw silliness. (Its original songs are by T. Bone Burnett and the late Stephen Bruton, a longtime collaborator with the Bad Blake-ish Kris Kristofferson.)

But the low-key, amiable Crazy Heart's real antecedent is any number of indie feel-bad-then-feel-a-bit-better character studies about a basically good, but off-track person stumbling toward the light. (This film recalls Bruce Beresford's Tender Mercies, about a washed-up country singer; its star, Robert Duval, co-produced this film, and has a small role as Blake's longtime buddy.)

Blake, especially as played by the affable Jeff Bridges, is simply too sympathetic to give Crazy Heart any sharp edges. That's a flaw of how Blake has been written -- another in a long line of charming fuck-ups whom screenwriters believe women can't help falling for. The script scrimps on inherent tensions in the music biz in favor of the central romance, and even that aspect feels more rote than fully realized. While it's conceivable that an intelligent woman such as Jean could get tangled up in Blake's messy life, Crazy Heart never makes the case why it happens. 

On the other hand, it's a pleasure to watch Bridges. He is Crazy Heart's ace, effortlessly filling Blake's cowboy boots, even if they seem shabbily familiar. Bridges does his own singing and guitar-playing, and is a good physical match for the rode-hard Blake: He's appropriately blobby (though not quite of legendary Lebowski proportions), with vestiges of his youthful good looks visible through his wrinkles and grizzled beard. 

Bridges will likely nab an Oscar nomination for this role, if only because Hollywood loves these redemptive stories (especially if they're set in an "exotic" milieu). He may not win, though, because frankly, Bridges doesn't deliver the showy histrionics that get rewarded. Blake is another of those roles that Bridges simply seems to inhabit, but voters often like to "see" the acting. 

That's a shame, because it's a damn sight harder to play a self-destructive, self-pitying drunk in a minor key than it is to throw tantrums or have a shirt-rending sob-fest. Instead, Bridges delivers a seamlessly layered role: Bad Blake, the always-on public figure, and the weary, bored, empty guy beneath the chipped veneer.

My favorite scene was Crazy Heart's only real this-business-eats-your-soul bit, a deceptively upbeat slice of misery that Bridges nails wordlessly. Blake reluctantly agrees to open for his former protégé, Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), now a huge new-country star. When Blake hits the chorus of his signature song, he thrills to hear a roar from the huge crowd. But the cheer is for Sweet, who has scooted out from backstage to perform an impromptu duet with Blake. Sweet, who's there to pay homage, naively misses how the moment devastates his hero. 

But Blake checks his pain against Sweet's genuine intentions, and keeps on playing. If he's a faded nobody sharing the stage with the shiny somebody he used to be, then at least he'll sing his busted heart out. It's a show-biz-movie staple -- the Judy Garland moment re-written for manly men -- but Bridges made me wince just the same.

 

Starts Fri., Jan. 29

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