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Jeff Bridges radiates in lackluster “Crazy Heart”

Jeff Bridges embodies the ache of a drink-drowned life in "Crazy Heart."

Country singer Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges) would smoke three cigarettes at once if he could, and after a few hours of daylight boozing he almost does. Mostly Bad just uses the smoldering butts to light new ones, a constant effort to busy his mind with nicotine. A man like that has a lot of hard stories in him, and any one he lets out is one you want to hear. Bad’s got a way of making everything sound like pearls of wisdom even when he was too drunk to learn his lesson.

A part like this requires a certain kind of actor, and that happens to be the kind of actor Jeff Bridges has been throughout his whole career: mumbly voice, weathered, closed-off face, tired eyes that look distant but take in everything. From Barney Cousins to Michael Faraday, The Dude and beyond, he has been finding the minute details that make his characters as long as he’s been playing them. Bad Blake may shame all the rest, and the role will be the one that wins the actor the accolades that have eluded him. Should Bridges nab that Best Actor Oscar, forget all the chatter about it being some placating “Lifetime Achievement Award.” He’ll deserve that statuette based on Bad Blake and Bad Blake alone.

Scott Cooper’s “Crazy Heart,” adapted from Thomas Cobb’s novel, is a showcase for Bridges, and don’t let anyone tell you different. He’s the center of most shots, the man everyone else orbits around (though Maggie Gyllenhaal and Colin Farell don’t waste their parts). And because he has such presence, that almost excuses some of the film’s more obvious flaws, like the underwritten secondary characters, the overreliance on twangy background music (not to be confused with Bad’s excellent concerts) and the recycled story, which sometimes feels like “Walk the Line.” (In fairness, the Bad Man Uplifted by Good Woman’s Love tale is older than time.) Unlike “Walk the Line,” “Crazy Heart” opens at a low point: Suffering that perpetual day-after-yesterday syndrome late-stage alcoholism brings, Bad’s broke and reduced to playing bowling alleys, the only places people still recognize him. His fans don’t get their money’s worth, since he plays so loaded on McClure’s he mumbles through every song. His refusal to bend to Nashville trends makes him a dinosaur; however, his more successful protégé Tommy Sweet (Farell) hasn’t given up. Tommy wants Bad to write new material, but with five marriages over and no life to speak of, Bad figures he’s got nothing left to write about.

Into this spiral appears Jean Craddock (Gyllenhaal), a Santa Fe single mother and freelance writer who wants to interview the musician. He latches onto her as his beacon of goodness, and her 4-year-old son Buddy (Jack Nation) gives him the shot at fatherhood he gave up 24 years ago, when abandoned his own son. Down is the only place this affair can go, naturally, yet Gyllenhaal generates so much spirit and warmth that she doesn’t seem like the crutch/muse/stray-collector Jean’s written to be. Through her eyes we see a flicker of life in Bad’s eyes. When he drawls “I wanna talk about how bad you make this room look,” her attraction to him feels … warranted. Farell, too, takes his flat character to higher levels, playing Tommy not as a showboating poser but a genuine talent with respect for his mentor. Only Robert Duvall, as Bad’s longtime confidante Wayne, seems wholly wasted. 

Acting aside, there are other things “Crazy Heart” gets right, like the cinematography (the stunning, arid landscapes of Texas, Santa Fe and Arizona give Barry Markowitz plenty to work with) and the music. Nobody bests T-Bone Burnett at churning out to-the-marrow gems like “Fallin’ & Flyin'” and the achingly exquisite “The Weary Kind.” Songs like these have a slow, whiskey burn doing down, and they cannot exist separately from the film. They are the film, and so is Bridges’ performance of them. Whether he’s singing “I used to be somebody / Now I’m somebody else” or “this ain’t no place for the weary kind,” he’ll crack your heart right open. You couldn’t stop him if you tried.

Grade: B-

13 Responses

  1. I didn’t really care for this, and though Bridges was fine he’s nowhere near my favourite of the year. But, it is what it is.

  2. I agree with the last paragraph of your review.

    I don’t believe you have seen “A Single Man”. I’m holding judgment. I have seen all of the Best Actor nominees.

    I think that Bridges is getting love now because he hasn’t won and put one an “Academy performances” where he is an alcoholic that is down on his luck, a hot mess, puking all over the place, etc. Classic staples of getting Oscar gold. It’s old and tired.That’s why I have a love/hate relationship with the Oscars.

    Firth should win, but he won’t and that is a shame.

    • The addict-screws-up story is older than old; that I know. What matters is me is whether the actor can sell it and make me buy it. I did.

      Sadly, I think I’m going to have to wait for DVD on “A Single Man” — it came and went from the one art theater near here. I don’t doubt that Firth would deserve the Oscar as well. He too has done a lot of odd or offbeat parts that went unnoticed, and as a character actor he’s on par with Bridges.

      • I also agree that Firth deserves the Oscar, but I’d have no problem with Bridges winning. He’s had such a long, great career, and it’s about time he’s got his due.

    • Also, I think the reason so many actors who take on addict parts get nominated is because it’s harder to play an addict than we’d think. If you go totally id-driven, want-nothing-but-drugs, we have no sympathy for the character. There has to be a balance between that drive for the substance and the weaker drive to grasp at life outside the substance. Not every actor can nail this, but when one does the part sucks me in. And I truly believe — this is not my love for The Dude talking here — that Bridges nailed it.

  3. Good review M. The main thing that bugged me was the relationship between Bad and Jean which pretty much came out of nowhere and makes no sense.

    • It was a little forced, but I maintain that Maggie Gyllenhaal can make almost any nonsensical situation make sense.

  4. If Firth doesn’t win this year he’ll be up for next in this [url]http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1447965/[/url]

  5. man, everyone says this movie is kind of lame but bridges is great. pity. feel a top five coming on..

  6. I saw this last night and I loved it. It was definitely a recycled plot but the story grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. Bridges was phenomenal and Maggie…oh, sweet Maggie… 🙂 I do agree, however, that Duvall’s part seemed wasted. Could have done so much with that part and yet they used his talent so little.

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