I’ll say it. We’re all itching to say it. This movie gives us yet another in a long line of opportunities to say it.
Jeff Bridges is one of the all-time hall-of-fame no-debate greats.
Watching his body of work unfold is a pleasure. That’s the long and short of it. There are certain actors whose careers result from the undeniable truth that watching them perform is a pure honey pleasure. Always. Predictably. Jeff Bridges has always been at the very least good, but in the last twenty years or so, he’s evolved into something so pure and joyous to behold that when he runs into a piece of material that’s worthy of the thunder he can call down, it’s an event.
He slips on the character of Bad Blake, a country music singer limping through a dog’s ass of a career, old and bloated and perpetually drunk, like it’s a worn denim jacket, something familiar, something shaped just like him. By the end of the film, you’d be forgiven if you think this is just like last year’s “The Wrestler,” with real-life adding the friction to the onscreen drama. In that film, you know that Mickey Rourke is really a guy who wrestles powerful demons every day, every hour, just to keep himself together enough to make a living at his craft. His character is, and so is he. The same is true of the shockingly good “JCVD,” where the big monologue moment of clarity for Jean Claude Van Damme is so naked and personal that you can’t believe he would sit still and allow it to be recorded. Here, Bridges convinces as a train wreck still moving forward out of sheer force of habit.
Scott Cooper, working from a novel by Thomas Cobb, wrote and directed this picture, and it’s a modest affair, intimate and direct. Bad Blake meets a woman. She wants an interview. What she gets is a complication, a man she’s attracted to but who has no business being in a relationship with anyone, much less a woman half his age with a young child. Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Jean, and she delivers one of the most unaffected performances of her career here. Maybe it’s what happens when you’re doing scene after scene with someone as strong as Bridges. Whatever the case, it’s the tender duet between the two of them that really drives the film forward. Blake sees her as some sort of last-minute redemption, convinced there’s no second act to his own career looming, and he believes that if he can do right by her and by her son, it’ll make up for all the opportunities he’s blown and for the adult son he completely neglected during his childhood.
When I spoke to Robert Duvall, the film’s co-producer, I brought up his gentle classic “Tender Mercies,” which could be described with the same general broad strokes. I think it’s sort of lovely that Duvall appears here as a bartender who gives Bad Blake a home base to play when he’s not on the road, like a tip of the hat to that film. It’s better to acknowledge it and then get on with things than try to pretend that this is the first time anyone’s told this story. And as with music itself, the lesson is clear: it’s not just the song that’s important… it’s also who sings it and how. The reason to watch this film is to see just how fully Bridges sinks into the role, and to see how comfortably he wears the skin of this guy. Bridges has been playing music in real life for years, and so he seems completely at home with that part of the performance.
The film is a very modest affair, dramatically speaking. It doesn’t build to any big finish, and it sets up things that could have been inflated into giant melodrama, then avoids that trap completely. Take, for example, the relationship with Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), a country music megastar that started his career playing for Bad Blake. The way the film teases it for the first half-hour or so, with Blake deflecting every mention of Tommy, makes it seem like the inevitable collision between the two is going to be nothing but fireworks. Instead, the relationship turns out to be something different, and it becomes apparent that Tommy Sweet isn’t Bad Blake’s enemy… Bad Blake is. No one’s trying to hold him back or run him down, and the industry hasn’t turned its back on him. He just refuses to live up to his own talent, and that’s what keeps his wings clipped.
Even when the third act arrives and the opportunity for big catharsis comes, the film plays it modest, and some might see that as a fault. I think it’s a matter of taste, and it’s surprising that Scott Cooper’s a young guy. This feels like a film made by someone more seasoned, someone who’s closer to Bridges or even Duvall in age and experience. It’s not surprising that he’s an actor, though, because he demonstrates an excellent rapport with his entire cast. Even the non-actors in the film like country singer Ryan Bingham come across well thanks to the environment that Cooper creates for them. The soundtrack, produced by music legend T-Bone Burnett, is authentic and memorable, and it’s probably the most successful integration of music and drama since “Once.”
“Crazy Heart” isn’t the kind of film that will devastate you, and it’s not reaching for the home run. It is quiet, gentle, heart-bruised more than heart-broken, and the best thing about it is the way it lingers in the memory after you’ve seen it, like a song you can’t get out of your head.
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