Director: Scott Cooper
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Colin Farrell, Robert Duvall
Running Time: 112 min.
★★★ 1/2 (out of ★★★★)
It's become a long-running joke that country music can sometimes really pile it on. Drinking. Women trouble. Pick-up trucks. More drinking. You couldn't be blamed for assuming that all those stereotypes have been adapted to the screen in Crazy Heart, in which Jeff Bridges plays a washed-up 57 year-old alcoholic country singer named Bad Blake. But what's so unusual is how the film tells an overly familiar story in such an effortless, laid back style that it seems fresh and invested with new meaning. The performances are too honest and the setting and circumstances too believable that you end up losing yourself in a story that in lesser hands could have easily come off as a poor man's version of The Wrestler, but with a country star.
There's relief in discovering the movie never feels like it's trying too hard, casually letting this world the protagonist inhabits wash over you. The music and performances are what I'll come away remembering most, but it's surprising how much respect rookie writer/director Scott Cooper shows the audience by not playing any games and just delivering it as is. And that was more than enough considering it's Bridges who carries much of the load in the role that justifiably won him an Oscar.
When we first meet Bad (Bridges) he's exiting his '78 Chevy Suburban and dumping a bottle of his own urine in the parking lot after arriving for a gig. It's a steep fall for a performer who years earlier was filling arenas and respected as one of the biggest country stars of his era, kind of a combination of Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson. Now with a serious drinking problem and an adult son who wants nothing to do with him, Bad is relegated to staying at cheap motels and doing one shot gigs at local town bars and bowling alleys in the southwest.
"I used to be somebody, but now I'm somebody else" is a famous lyric from one of his biggest hits and an accurate reflection of his current situation, living in the past and singing the same songs to the same crowds who also have yet to find a way to move on. Bad was somebody, but now he's a nobody, vomiting between sets and waking up the next morning with aging groupies in his motel bed. That's until he meets Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a divorced young journalist doing a piece on him, and while Bad's developing relationship with her, as well as her four-year-old son, Buddy (Jack Nation), could be his last chance at personal redemption. Meanwhile the possibility of a professional comeback rests on his recently renewed connection to Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), a current country star he mentored urging him to get back in the songwriting game.
It would be easy to classify the Bridges' Best Actor victory as a "make-up" for being slighted in the past or a career achievement award and that's true to an extent. We could all probably name about four or five performances he's given that already deserved recognition but in his defense this does rank up there with his strongest work and I'd only be able to name two (I'll let you guess which ones) that I thought were better. Why he tends to be overlooked and so often taken for granted when his peers collect the accolades could be because he makes everything look so effortless that it doesn't seem like he's doing anything. He disappears into roles to such an extent that it's understandable to forget he was the actor who played them. He's been doing it his whole career but the character of Bad really plays on that strength because he's a laid back, cool guy battling demons but unwilling to show anyone the pain he's in or even acknowledge it to himself. Few but Bridges, the master of understatement, could have fit it better and surprises us even more with a vocal and performing ability no one knew he possessed. This part was tailor made for him and seemed to be just waiting for him to reach the point in his career where he could finally play it.
What's funny is that Bridges doesn't possess what you'd necessarily consider the greatest voice by music industry standards but it's perfect for this character and the original songs and music composed T. Bone Burnett (including the Oscar winning original song,"The Weary Kind" co-written by Ryan Bingham) sound better than most of the country music I've come across on the radio. The musical performances from him and Farrell are easily the most believable on screen since 2005's Walk The Line. I'm not a country music fan at all but still loved the music in this, so that's saying a lot. The film takes a familiar story arc but throws in some small touches that set it apart, like how Blake's relationship with Jean just seems to come out of nowhere with little explanation, as something like that would.
How a young, pretty reporter would fall for this old train wreck of a man is never a question because Gyllenhaal doesn't let it become one. Those who only know what she's capable of from her essentially thankless role in The Dark Knight are going to be blown way by how much depth she brings to this single mom. She's Bridges' equal in every way. Certain expectations accompany the hot shot character of Tommy Sweet, especially when he's played by someone like Colin Farrell, but Cooper's script wisely ignores those, choosing to go in a more realistic direction and refusing to present Tommy as the arrogant rival we expect he has to be. Robert Duvall has a cameo role as an old friend of Bad's but if you blink you'll miss it.
As many have already pointed out, the similarities between Bad Blake and Mickey Rourke's Randy The Ram from The Wrestler are too numerous to ignore, but that's not necessarily such a bad thing since he was a fascinating character and so is this one and the setting is vastly different. You didn't have to be a wrestling fan to appreciate that film just as you don't need to be a country music listener to enjoy this. For both, the viewer hopes the protagonist can make a comeback but know the chances are slim because they seem so thoroughly consumed by their own demons and unwilling to let go.Credit Cooper for crafting a biographical drama that makes an emotional connection while remaining mostly free of any false crisis or manipulative shenanigans that would make us feel like we're watching a movie written by someone who's trying to write an a comeback tale to pull at the heartstrings. Crazy Heart is real and raw, but Bridges makes sure it's never depressing.