Early in Scott Cooper’s Crazy Heart, we see Bad Blake, the middle aged country music star played by Jeff Bridges, doubled over a trash can puking his guts up. It is heartbreaking, until Blake reaches into the void to retrieve his sunglasses, wiping the mucus off as he picks them up. In a manner that only Mr. Bridges can conjure up, the move comes off as charming, witty almost. Bad Blake is a drunk in need of a wakeup call. but if not for the brilliant nuance Bridges brings to the role Crazy Heart would be an after school special, shown at SADD meetings across the country to keep kids off the bottle.
Often, I find myself complaining about films that have a fat middle, meaning the conflict isn’t interesting enough to fill ninety-plus minutes so the makers dilly dally until it’s time for a resolution. In Crazy Heart’s case, the first act drones on for about 70 minutes before a tangible conflict makes itself apparent. Now, I’m going to split hairs for a second. When Bad meets Jean Craddock, he falls in love instantly, but being the lifelong drinker and wayward musician that he is, the romantic conflict is obvious. The trouble is that that plot line becomes ancillary by the end of the film, at which point we realize the real issue was Bad’s drinking. After a disastrous day at the mall, Bad gets the wakeup call he needs and zip! He goes to rehab, writes a hit song, and generally makes amends with his life. The roman and the addiction affect each other, but the problem with this kind of plot is that nothing much happens save for Bad swirling around the bottom of a toilet bowl life. Linearly, it just doesn’t hold up.
Now about that performance. Bad Blake is an American paradox. His drinking, cheating, and down-and-outness are precisely the kind of despicable traits we would never wish on anyone’s child, yet the result of those hardships are enduring melodies that have affected generations of country music fans (fictionally, of course). So here we have to choose if we want him to be a man or an artist. Mr. Bridges is able to be both at the same time. Even at the lowest of points, Bridges keeps a glint of hope, of humanity behind the dwindling shell of a man. The film climaxes in a shopping mall, with Blake losing Jean’s son, Buddy, when he stops for a drink. Conversationally, to say “Bad lost Buddy when he stopped for a drink”, one can’t help but think this is a man who should be strung up, discarded of; a complete deadbeat. However, watching the scene take place, with the incredible heart that Bridges exudes in every frame, it is not so black and white. It all goes down in a matter of seconds and his concern for Buddy is absolute. Much credit goes to Mr. Cooper’s directing here as well. There is a brilliance to the way in which we can get on the good side of an inveterate drunk.
Ms. Gyllenhaal, as Jean, is a nice complement to Blake’s oddness. She is so wholesome, one can’t help but wonder about her motivations in this doomed relationship. Perhaps dating Blake is a way to scratch a particular itch she has before getting on with her life. Robert Duvall is absolutely charming in each of his scenes, which are few and far between, as Bad’s bartender and mentor. Ironically, the man who may well have enabled his drinking over the years is who he turns to when he decides to rehabilitate himself. Father figures lurk in odd places, I suppose. The oddest of casting: Colin Farrell as the protégé-cum-superstar Tommy Sweet. He certainly has the whole bad boy of country look down, but in recent years I’ve come to expect his native brogue whenever he’s onscreen it was tough to see him be so down home. Sure, it’s not fair of me, but what can I say?
Finally, the music. Producer T-Bone Burnett’s prolific career in the sounds of Americana infuse the film with a musical maturity that really gives it legs. Blake’s songs, which are performed throughout by Mr. Bridges, represent a lifetime’s worth of country composing. None of them are of our time; instead they span time, musical tastes and even socioeconomic feelings. It sounds like a body of work, which is exactly what it is meant to be. As a real kicker, “the song” of the film, “The Weary Kind”, sounds almost exactly like the life- weary tunes that Neil Diamond, Warren Zevon, and Johnny Cash have recorder in recent years (and for the latter two, as swan songs). It is a phenomenal song, and another way to read the film is as the building blocks of a single song. Perhaps within the short runtime of a song exists the entire universe of one’s experience.
In general, Crazy Heart is not the kind of film that would be able to get on my good side. It smacks of being a preachy alcoholism referendum. However, the combination of a solid soundtrack and an amazing lead performance makes it something worth checking out, and certainly worth appreciating.