By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic
In first-time director Scott Cooper’s “Crazy Heart,” a tuneful, down-home lament about an aging country western singer on the skids, Jeff Bridges etches his latest Oscar-worthy depiction. But when he finally snatches the statuette this go-round for breathing new life into an old cliché, tacitly it’ll be for an entire career of such subtly informed portrayals.
Bad Blake’s devil-may-care lifestyle has relegated him to a dizzying circuit of one-night stands in gin mills throughout the Southwest. He has been cruising for a bruising longer than he can remember. Along the way he has lost favor with four wives and never once seen his son. Add a few stanzas and he is the personification of a country western song.
But of course he’s a bit more complicated than that. Thus a catalyst is interjected to peel the layers of rationalization and showbiz bravado from our tarnished star. She is Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Jeanne Craddock, a young reporter seeking an interview for her small newspaper. Come hither, says the spider. We fear for the fly. The interaction surprises.
We are skeptical of love’s chances, and wonder if Bad Blake is even capable of a conventional relationship. Down and out or not, drunk or sober, he is wrapped in an aura of celebrity that has evinced itself at every major musical venue. What’s more, fans who show up to hear him at the abysmal honkytonks he now plays are happy to enable him.
There’s almost always someone who wants to be able to say they bought a drink for Bad Blake. And there’s a limitless supply of damaged prom queens who, unable to lasso the icon in his salad days, are now willing to settle for the older model. All of which makes Jeanne so appealing. Seeing himself in her eyes, he fantasizes promise if not redemption.
In other words, Bad, who won’t tell us his real first name, seeks the magically romantic way to temporal salvation…the way it happens on the jukebox. Never mind that he stubbornly passes up a particular business opportunity and refuses to get sober. Then there’s his puzzling relationship with current megastar Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell).
At the initial interview with Jeanne, a brilliantly uncomfortable, understated scene in his shabby motel room, Bad says there are two things he won’t discuss: his son, and Tommy Sweet. All we know at the outset is that he taught Tommy everything he knows. The who, what, where, when and why that led to their fallout remains a mystery of interest.
In fact, much of the film has us surmising. Expect no big action. It’s about mood, character and motivation. Possessing the temper of a French film by way of lonesome tumbleweeds and an awful achin’ heart, simple dialogue speaks volumes with nary a drum roll divulgence. Mr. Bridges’s heretofore unsung singing talent provides fluidity.
I don’t know how Lloyd’s taller son would do on “American Idol,” but he’s convincing enough here. Standing on a jerry-rigged bandstand, usually backed by a pickup band of local hopefuls, he suddenly enlivens the room with the distinctive real thing. Often in his cups yet managing to keep from toppling, he melodically spews the ballad of his survival.
There, under the smudged lights, he is simultaneously what once was, what apparently is, and, in plaintive tones, what will hopefully be on some fine, faraway day. It is what he’s come to expect and pretty much accept…fair comeuppance for the hard drinking existence he has led. It means no regrets. But alas, there is a loophole.
Yes sirree, cowboy. Just as there’s always room for Jell-O, no dance to perdition with the Devil can’t be turned into a joyful Virginia reel. That is, if love hangs in the balance. It is a traditional plot dispensation, a pass we humans allow ourselves, authorized under the larger umbrella statute, Love Conquers All. “Crazy Heart” invokes it rather well.
Miss Gyllenhaal’s Jeanne, who rushes to the rescue with her little boy in tow, does the angelic stereotype with unique freshness. Also of note, in a stint only a bit larger than a cameo, is the always wonderful Robert Duvall as Wayne, Bad’s best friend/favorite bartender. And Colin Farrell is credible as Tommy, Bad’s younger generation prodigy.
But the main reason to relinquish the comfort of your couch is Jeff Bridges. His presence fully fills the screen, establishing a warming ambiance that truly makes us care about this fellow human being, foibles and all. He is a likable metaphor for the life experience. For while few of us are country singers, we all know what it is to have a “Crazy Heart.”
“Crazy Heart,” rated R, is a Fox Searchlight Pictures release directed by Scott Cooper and stars Jeff Bridges, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Colin Farrell. Running time: 112 minutes
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