Crazy Heart (Fox Searchlight, R)

film_crazy-heart_sm.jpgFor all his faults it’s impossible to dislike Blake.

 

film_crazy-heart.jpg 

It takes a great actor to bring a time-worn story to life, and that’s just what Jeff Bridges accomplishes in Crazy Heart. The film is built around a character named Bad Blake who’s a composite of every hard-drinking, self-destructive country singer you’ve ever heard of (in life, legend, or on celluloid), but Bridges’ performance as Blake so transcends the clichés that he’s one of the favorites for the Best Actor Oscar this year (after four previous nominations dating all the way back to 1972 and The Last Picture Show).

Which just goes to prove that originality isn’t everything, and with Crazy Heart first-time director Scott Cooper creates an enjoyable genre film which is as honest about the life of a touring musician as anything I’ve seen. You don’t have to take my word on that: No less an authority than Willie Nelson endorses the film’s portrayal of life on the road.

Authenticity is aided by the fact that Bridges and Colin Farrell, playing a former protégé whose star has been rising while Blake’s has been falling, do their own singing. The soundtrack by Stephen Bruton and T. Bone Burnett is a nice mix of country classics and original material, including the closing song "The Weary Kind" by Burnett and Ryan Bingham, so there might be an Oscar or two in the works for them as well.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that you seen this story many times before and while watching will be reminded of other films which covered the same ground but with vastly superior screenplays. My advice is to turn off the voice in your head which tells you such things and settle down to enjoy what Crazy Heart has to offer.

Bad Blake used to be somebody but now he’s just glad to be someplace, anyplace really, as long as he can stand in front of a mic, play the guitar and sing. We first meet him driving to a gig at a bowling alley in the middle of nowhere where the management won’t even let him run a bar tab—it seems Blake’s reputation has preceded him.

But for all his faults it’s impossible to dislike Blake. He always shows up for his gigs (even if he has to make a hasty exit mid-set to vomit in the alley) and remains cheerfully philosophical about his diminished status and deteriorating health while not turning down the pleasures life offers. These include the camaraderie of his fellow musicians, the appreciation of fans who remember his better days, and the attentions of groupies willing to overlook the fact that he‘s starting to look like ten miles of bad road.

He gets luckier in more ways than one in Santa Fe when a reporter named Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal, in the film’s other major role) shows up to interview him. She’s a single mom with an adorable four-year-old son (played by Jack Nation), and because attractive young ladies in films always seem to have a thing for paunchy old guys with bad habits, you can guess how that plays out (although to be fair, the screenplay does have a few surprises in store).

Robert Duvall is excellent in a small role as a bar owner, as is James Keane as Blake’s manager. But this is Jeff Bridges’ film, and his performance is so natural that, as the cliché goes, it seems like real life. Credit is also due to Cooper for not trying to make more out of the story than what’s there and letting the film unfold at an unforced pace.

The internet, that ever-reliable source of information, informs me that Crazy Heart was slated to go be released in the spring or possibly go direct to DVD until people started noticing how good Bridges’ performance was. So Fox Searchlight decided to release it in December to make the Oscar deadline, and I think you’ll agree that the studio made the right decision. | Sarah Boslaugh

 

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