The bad news first: Crazy Heart, a new film about a washed-up country-music star trying to deal with age, alcoholism, abandoned children, a career in decline — and new hope provided by the love of a younger woman — suffers in comparison to two films it bears much resemblance to: Tender Mercies and The Wrestler.
Tender Mercies, Robert Duvall's 1983 Academy Award-winning film, was effective as a prayer for comfort on behalf of its fictional celebrity protagonist. And The Wrestler, Mickey Rourke's 2009 Academy Award-nominated movie, was effective as an implication of the audience in the crimes committed against its famous lead character.
But Crazy Heart just is — an inert vehicle too undersized for its larger-than-life lead.
Which gets us to the good news: As Crazy Heart's Bad Blake, Jeff Bridges is fantastic. (He's already won the Golden Globe and SAG awards and looks like a lock for the Best Actor Oscar.) Always a reliable presence on-screen, here the actor is in complete command of his role, filling Blake out with little physical asides such as whistles, snaps, gestures, tics — collateral acting that infuses the character with life. Perhaps more impressive, Bridges doesn't get the benefit of an audience's institutional memory of the actor to inform the performance, as Rourke did in The Wrestler.
Crazy Heart is the feature debut of Scott Cooper, who adapts from Thomas Cobb's same-name novel. The film is shot through with observations on lifestyle details: unbuckled jeans and a jug of urine after a long road trip; motel-room blinds drawn to keep out the harsh light of day; a pile of mail back home.
T-Bone Burnett and the late Stephen Bruton provide original music for the film, including the Bad Blake songs "The Weary Kind," "I Don't Know," and "Hold On You."
"The Weary Kind" won the Golden Globe for Best Original Song. "Hold On You" sounds a lot like the intro song to the TV show Firefly.
Bridges performs each of these tunes and acquits himself fine as a singer. Though a mild bit of suspended disbelief is required to imagine him as a star vocalist, he's got the performance charisma and fictional songwriting chops to back up the illusion.
Blake seems to be a country star in the Outlaw subgenre — Hank Jr. immediately came to mind, though I'm no musicologist and have no doubt missed out on some subtleties and culture references. (That said, you don't need to be a country fan to extract nutrients from the film.)
Bridges has chemistry to pass out to his co-stars — in relationships romantic, antagonistic, or platonic, the rising tide of his performance lifts all boats. Blake is interviewed by and forms an attachment with Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a single mother who impresses him with her knowledge of Lefty Frizzell. One person he doesn't want to be asked about is Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), a former back-up musician who has hit the big time performing songs Blake wrote. Back home in Houston, Blake leans on his pal Wayne (Tender Mercies' Duvall).
Blake is 57 years old, four times divorced, chain-smokes, drinks too much whiskey, suffers from hemorrhoids, and drives a worn-down '78 Silverado. "I used to be somebody but now am somebody else," he sings. Sounds like a country song.