We see this old buck amble out of his ’78 Suburban, sunglasses on, pants undone, brimming jug of highway pee ready to be upturned on the sun-baked parking lot. He’s arrived at the bowling alley where he’s to play tonight’s show with some local band he’s yet to meet. He’s seen better days. His manager has to nag him to write some new material. He’s 57-years-old, he’s got $10 in his pocket and a bad dose of hemorrhoids, but he is, after all, a country singer, so this creaky list of lamentations means a new song should practically write itself. Crazy Heart is the story of how this singer hits rock bottom and starts to pull himself back up. It’s a very familiar tune played with some genuine freshness. It’s a well-crafted, thoughtful movie for adults. It might have been respectable and kinda ordinary, but it stars Jeff Bridges, a fact that elevates the picture to the level of something you probably don’t want to miss.
It’s nothing new to say that Bridges is one of the most underappreciated actors in American movies. They may be actors just as good that you’ve never heard of, but none who have spent so long on the cusp of the limelight, who've starred in countless big Hollywood movies yet is most beloved for the cult favourites. (You know what I'm talking about. This isn't Bridges' first time in a bowling alley.) Bad Blake, the weary yet resilient hero of Crazy Heart, an aging country troubadour addicted to booze, smokes, rough women and tawdry telenovelas, is yet another performance of shaggy beauty and pathos from Bridges, who already won the Golden Globe for the role and will hopefully get the Oscar he richly deserves. Bridges looks like Kris Kristofferson and sings a bit like Merle Haggard. The film’s music, a set of unusually strong and poignant songs, comes from T-Bone Burnett and Kristofferson’s late collaborator Stephen Bruton, but Bridges makes it his own, as he does with every gesture in the movie, however fleeting: the way he wakes from an accidental nap and muzzles three cigarettes from his bedside pack, the way he fumbles with a chain lock with no hook, or breads fish fillets while talking on the phone to a younger woman he’s fallen unnervingly in love with. It’s just a pleasure to watch him, even while he slips toward wreckage.
Based on the novel by Thomas Cobb, Crazy Heart marks the debut of actor turned writer/director Scott Cooper. There are more than enough elegantly wrought moments throughout the movie to prove Cooper’s got chops, such as the shot where we watch a witness to an accident rush toward a crashed car in the reflection of the driver’s half-open window. There are wonderful bits of dialogue. “How are you, Bad?” an old friend asks. “I’m worse,” replies Bad. “What do you want to talk about?” asks a fetching young interviewer, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal. “I want to talk about how bad you make this room look.” There’s a supporting turn from an effortlessly charming Robert Duvall as a spry barkeep that’s virtually worth the ticket price alone. Duvall’s also one of the movie’s producers, and once played a country singer himself, in Bruce Beresford’s Tender Mercies.
It’s only in the movie’s last third or so that it begins to reveal its weaknesses: a baldly contrived bit of conflict to hurl us toward climax, a too-neat final scene, a little much too much squinting from a well-meaning Colin Farrell as Bad’s hugely successful protégé, and the hurried unraveling of Gyllenhaal’s love interest, a character who feels a bit undernourished for the emotional gymnastics she’s asked to perform. But such a handful of bum notes can hardly steal anything from Crazy Heart’s resonant grace, one that flows from the heart of a rare young filmmaker more concerned with letting great actors create gentle magic onscreen than impressing restless viewers with empty glitz, two words that pretty much epitomize everything wrong not only with a lot of shitty movies but with most country music in the last 30 years or more.