Jeff and Maggie in an age-inappropriate scene!
Crazy Heart (2009)
Directed by Scott Cooper
Butcher’s Run Films, 112 mins. (R)
* * *
Jeff Bridges is the odds-on favorite to win the Oscar for Best Actor for Crazy Heart. In our view, his performance isn’t a patch on that of Colin Firth in A Single Man, or that of the un-nominated Christian McKay in Me and Orson Welles. But Bridges will likely collect the hardware because he’s a Hollywood insider and because he’s very good in Crazy Heart.
Bridges plays Bad Blake, a former Country music star fading into a whiskey-induced haze. He hasn’t had a hit or a band in years and his career, truck, and body have all seen better days. He coaxes his battered Chevy Suburban across the incredibly wide expanses of the Southwest, his pants undone so he can urinate into a jug as he drinks and drives. He’s broke, keeping himself marginally together with booze, cigarettes, and junk food and taking any gig and pick-up band he finds in awaiting bowling alleys, honky tonk dives, and restaurant lounges. Most shows are sparsely attended by aging wrecks like Blake himself. They long for the old hits, which Blake indulges them in singing because he hasn’t written a new song in eons either. Blake badly needs a break and, as such films generally provide, two come his way. First, he meets an alluring wannabe music journalist, Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a single mother who’s had some back breaks of her own. Next, he reluctantly opens a show for Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), a former Blake sideman who’s now the hottest star on the circuit. The film revolves around whether Blake will find redemption or whether he’s too far gone for rehabilitation.
Bridges is fine in the role and, surprisingly, he can sing. He interprets Blake as a composite drawn from the biographies of numerous outlaw Country performers: Waylon Jennings, Townes Van Zandt, Hank Williams, T-Bone Walker…. And when he connects with Gyllenhaal, it’s hard not to think of Steve Earle, now on his seventh marriage to a woman seventeen years his junior. If it creeps you out to see films in which ruined-bodied older men make out with nubile younger women, Crazy Heart may make your skin crawl. Bridges is twenty-seven years older than Gyllenhaal and a pot-bellied, chain-smoking, alcoholic, sweat-soaked, unhygienic disaster. In real-life the only thing a pert character such as Jean Craddock would want from a wreck like Blake would be an interview.
This is the film’s major shortcoming. Way too much happens simply because the story demands it and the songs are much stronger than the script. The lack of writing means that we see too much concert footage and not enough character development. To be fair, though, the songs are pretty darn good, as one might expect from material written by T-Bone Burnett and the late Stephen Burton. Burnett has said that he wanted the songs to be a cross between Leonard Cohen and the Country legend Don Williams and darned if they didn’t pull it off. Think a scruffier version of Kris Kristofferson with slightly less range and a more enigmatic repertoire and you’ve got Bridges’ Bad Blake demeanor and vocals.
For us, however, the film’s greatest revelation came from a guy who didn’t even get a billing, let alone an Oscar nomination: Colin Farrell. The non-billing was Farrell’s request—he wanted his appearance to be a surprise and didn’t want to draw attention away from his friend Jeff Bridges. This is admirable, but we still feel that Farrell is more Oscar-worthy than Bridges. (And he’s certainly more deserving of a Supporting Actor nomination than Matt Damon for Invictus, or Stanley Tucci, who should have been honored for Julie and Julia, not The Lovely Bones.) As Sweet, Farrell maintains a delicate balance between honoring his former mentor without patronizing or enabling him. He also gives a tantalizing glimpse at the gap between the glamorous public image of a Country star and the decidedly more prosaic nature of the private person. Although he never tips his hand, Farrell also left us with the unsettling impression that Sweet also walked the razor’s edge between keeping himself together and being devoured by fame. His is a nuanced portrayal that is surpassed only by his surprisingly fine singing.
Expect Jeff Bridges to win the Oscar. As always, though, separate Hollywood hype from reality. He will win for a very good, but not earth-shattering performance. In like fashion, Crazy Heart is decent but easily forgettable. It’s a middle-of-the-road addition to the crowded genre of Country-star-hits-the-skids films. Better efforts include Robert Altman’s masterpiece Nashville, the 1980 Loretta Lynn biopic Coal Miner’s Daughter, and Tender Mercies (1984). In Crazy Heart Robert Duvall makes an extended cameo appearance; in Tender Mercies he won the Oscar. Both the film and Duvall’s performance surpass what we see in Crazy Heart.