Monday, January 18, 2010

Movie Review: Crazy Heart

Crazy Heart *** ½
Directed By:
Scott Cooper.
Written By: Scott Cooper based on the book by Thomas Cobb.
Starring: Jeff Bridges (Bad Blake), Maggie Gyllenhaal (Jean Craddock), Robert Duvall (Wayne), Colin Farrell (Tommy Sweet), Paul Herman (Jack Greene).

One of Hollywood’s favorite stories is about the washed up superstar who has been destroyed by his own demons, who tries – either successfully or unsuccessfully – to make his way back to the top. We see multiple version of this story every year. If we’re lucky, you get a movie as honest and brilliant as The Wrestler out of the formula. But more often than not, filmmakers telling this type of story are lazy, and don’t even try. But Crazy Heart, which tells the same old story, is a very moving, very honest exploration of a former country music star, now spending most of his days drinking, and playing dives where few people care who he is. What makes Crazy Heart special is two things – the performance by Jeff Bridges, and the music, both of which are damned near perfect.

Bridges plays Bad Blake. He had some hits back in the day, but he has spent much of the last decade drinking, and not really writing any new material. He drives around in his pickup truck to one loser gig after another, with no money in his pockets, and just the remnants of fame with him. He cannot even afford his own band anymore – and has to play with a series of pickup band. One of the guys who used to be in his band, Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), has become a big star, and this makes Blake bitter. Not because Tommy has forgotten about him – he hasn’t – but because someone who used to play behind him, is now out in front, and no one cares about Blake anymore.

He cruises into Santa Fe for a two night stand at a seedy bar, not looking for much of anything accept to make a little money to buy more booze. A local reporter, Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal) wants to interview him for the paper. She’s beautiful, so he agrees. The conversation quickly steps away from the interview itself and becomes flirtatious. Blake still has charm, and he uses it on Jean. Jean has her own demons – an ex-husband no longer in the picture, and a son she adores – and slowly, reluctantly, she allows Blake into her life, knowing the risks.

Crazy Heart gets the details just about right. The lousy clubs that all look the same, the aging audience members looking for a bit of nostalgia, how one day drifts into the next, one gig is the same as another, and how you start drinking early in the day to get over the previous day’s hangover. This is Blake’s life, and while he doesn’t like it, he doesn’t know what else to do.

Bridges is great as Blake. He has the look of an aging country music star perfectly – the beard that hasn’t been trimmed in god knows how long, the cowboy hat, the sunglasses that are always slightly askew. Not only that, but he sounds like one to. Bridges does his own singing in this movie, and he does a great job. Full credit must go to T-Bone Burnett who wrote all the music for the film, because the songs sound authentic, and Bridges delivers them with force and emotion (the great song, The Weary Kind which Burnett co-wrote with Ryan Bingham is easily the best song written for a movie this year). No matter how strung out he appears to be, when he goes on stage, he really does try his best – not even having to leave momentarily to puke can keep him off the stage for very long.

Bridges does a great job off stage as well. He wants to be a nice guy, a reliable guy, especially after he falls for Jean, not to mention her son Buddy. But he just cannot help himself. He is who he is, and the alcohol has a hold on him that he cannot fight off for very long. There have been many great performances of movie drunks, and Bridges performance stands with the best of them. After more than four decades in the movies, Bridges continues to evolve as an actor. What other actor of his generation could have played The Big Lebowski, the President in The Contender and Bad Blake? Not many.

The presence of Robert Duvall in a supporting role as perhaps Blake’s one remaining true friend, brings to mind Tender Mercies, the 1983 film that Duvall won his only Oscar for (Duvall also produced Crazy Heart). In that film, Duvall plays a washed up country music singer looking for redemption, and finding it with a young widow and her son. So yes, the two movies are similar, but they aren’t the same. I think I even liked Crazy Heart more. These characters feel real, even amidst all the clichés that the movie surrounds them with. As Roger Ebert never tires of saying, and I never tire of quoting, a movie is not about what it’s about, but how it’s about it. The acting here – not just by Bridges although he towers over everyone in the movie – but by Gyllenhaal, Duvall and even Colin Farrell (who, I must admit, it took me a while to get used to as a Southern country music singer), finds just the right notes. The direction and screenplay by newcomer Scott Cooper is subtle, but wonderful. And the music is great. I don’t like country music very much (unless it’s Johnny Cash), but the music here hits just the right notes. Crazy Heart is a movie that rises above its clichés, and becomes something truly special.

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