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Review: Crazy Heart

Country discomfort: Jeff Bridges can't be beat
By PETER KEOUGH  |  January 26, 2010
2.5 2.5 Stars

 

Crazy Heart | Directed by Scott Cooper | Written by Cooper, based on the novel by Thomas Cobb | with Jeff Bridges, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Robert Duvall, Colin Farrell, Tom Bower, and Rick Dial | Fox Searchlight Pictures | 112 minutes
Every great actor has at least one washed-up, alcoholic, award-winning-country-singer role in him. For Jeff Bridges, it's "Bad" Blake, a former C&W legend now reduced to playing bowling alleys and dive bars in tiny towns in the Southwest. This is the stuff of which Oscar dreams are made: Bad bartering a song dedication for a bottle of whiskey from the owner of a local liquor store; Bad belting out a ballad and then staggering from the stage and out the back door to vomit in an alley; Bad waking up, again and again, in flyblown motels, hung over, noisome, and desperate for an eye opener and a cigarette. You can almost smell this performance, and it's not pretty. Bridges has re-entered Dude territory and crawled out the other side, ditching the dope, swapping the White Russians for sour mash and his bowling ball for a guitar.

As for the rest of the film, the best that can be said is that it doesn't get too much in the way. Except for the pungent, melancholy tunes (written by co-producer T Bone Burnett and Stephen Bruton) that Bridges renders with crusty conviction, first-time director Scott Cooper's adaptation of the Thomas Cobb novel rambles along with Office-like pseudo-cinema-vérité and TV-movie plodding.

Cooper does score points for his casting of the bit parts — like Rick Dial as the ornery amateur piano player Wesley, a local musician enlisted for one of Bad's anonymous series of ad hoc back-up bands. Wesley can actually play, so Bad agrees to let Wesley's single-mom journalist niece, Jean (played like a saucer-eyed rag doll by Maggie Gyllenhaal), interview him for her paper. I don't think I'm giving too much away in telling you that Bad and Jean take a shine to each other, that he just adores her charmless little boy, that Bad himself hasn't seen his own son for years, that the booze might prove an obstacle, and that the inevitable curse of Hollywood family values strikes before the end.

If this sounds like several other movies, the filmmakers are probably as aware of that as you are. Robert Duvall, who won an Oscar as the derelict C&W troubadour Mac Sledge in the 1983 Tender Mercies, had a hand in producing this one, and he has a pungent bit part as Bad's rabbitty, ever-loyal recovering alkie pal Wayne. (Between this and his cameo in The Road, Duvall should get some kind of award for Best Performance Under 10 Minutes.)

Also part of Bad's generic backstory is his former singing partner, Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell wielding his eyebrows like a pair of nunchucks but acquitting himself adequately in concert). Tommy's hit the big time, and you suspect his success may have owed as much to Bad's songwriting as it does to his own hunky charisma. So there's bad blood on Bad's side, but Tommy's contrite solicitousness suggests that — who knows? — a bittersweet reunion of sorts might be on the horizon.

If nothing else, Cooper's playlist of easy-listening clichés highlights the poignance and authenticity of Bad's music just as Bridges's performance validates the wry suffering and wily desperation that engender it. Maybe the best moment in the film comes when a banged-up Bad plucks out a haunting song while lying in Jean's bed. She asks him where it's from. He says, I just wrote it. And you believe him.

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