Crazy Heart. D: Scott Cooper. Jeff Bridges, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Robert Duvall, Colin Farrell. At the beginning of Crazy Heart, country singer Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges) emerges cautiously from an SUV as battered as his soul. Face deeply lined and slightly bent at the waist, Blake has the ginger, stiff-legged walk of a middle-aged man who driven too many miles and had too many drinks. Blake makes his way into the Arizona bar where he'll be playing that night; the owner is thrilled to meet him, but the barmaid clearly has no idea who he is and refuses to comp him a drink. Apparently, Blake's reputation has preceded him: The bar owner has put him up at a "fine motel" and offers dinner, but is adamant about Blake paying for his booze. Somewhat insulted, Blake leaves the bar for a liquor store across the street. He looks longingly at a bottle of his favorite bourbon, but obviously can't afford it. Luckily, the store proprietor recognizes Bad, buys him the bottle, and puts in a song request for that evening's show. Somewhat touched, Blake gratefully agrees and leaves the liquor store with a spring in his step. That night, during the performance of the song, he becomes sick from too much alcohol and exits the stage to throw up in an alley, leaving the band to perform the song.
Through this opening sequence, Bridges, one of the best actors to never receive an Academy Award and better than more than a few who have, displays a gamut of emotions reinforced by the essential reality of his character: A first-rate songwriter trapped in the body of a second-rate entertainer who views living through the dual prisms of alcoholism and endless touring across the vast southwest. He's in turn world-weary, humorous, sage, and cynical. This performance may well net Jeff Bridges the Oscar he has merited for years.
Crazy Heart tells the story of how a man who has given up on life discovers that it is worth living after all. It's honest, beautifully acted and filmed, and makes few missteps. The script, which resolutely refuses to deal in stock characters and situations, offers one pleasant surprise after another. Just when you anticipate Bad Blake making a snide or cynical remark, he smiles or offers an unexpected perspective. We expect Colin Farrell, cast effectively against type as Tommy Sweet, the country star who was once Blake's protege, to throw Blake a few condescending crumbs. Instead, he feels guilty about his success at the older man's expense. We see in Farrell's deep eyes the knowledge that his success won't last forever and that someday he'll be on the road alone and in need of a helping hand. Sweet wants to help Blake out, but for most of the film the older man's alcoholism and pride block Sweet's efforts to reestablish their friendship. And, painfully, when Sweet joins Blake on stage for a duet, we immediately see why he is the star and Blake is not: Besides being young and handsome, Sweet is simply the better singer.
A gig in Santa Fe prompts local music reporter Jean Craddock (Gyllenhaal) to seek out Blake for an interview. He is immediately smitten, and we can see why: The willowy, doe-eyed Gyllenhall is fresh-faced, lovely, and vulnerable. Moreover, she readily trades witticisms with him. Why she's attracted to this crumbling ruin of a man is less clear, but after an auto accident lands him in a Santa Fe hospital he turns to her. Jean puts him up in her house, where he quickly develops a grandfatherly interest in her four-year old son Buddy.
A tentative and tender courtship follows, culminating in Jean and Buddy visiting Blake at his home in Houston. Events there force Blake to confront his alcoholism, his abandonment of his adult son, and the realities of a relationship with a younger woman who has a child. These all lead to a lovely, authentic conclusion that rings as true as church bell.
Crazy Heart will mistakenly be pigeonholed as "small" movie. It's not. The human heart is as limitless and open as the southwestern landscape that populate the film. It's also as dark and murky as the barrooms in which Bad Blake performs. Crazy Heart explores all of these facets with wisdom, insight, humor, tenderness, and maturity. I'd like to see the big film that can claim that.