Before I saw Crazy Heart I was sure I did not need to see any more films about alcoholics, especially films about alcoholic musicians. After watching a drunken Joaquin Phoenix stomp through the woods like a boozy Frankenstein in Walk the Line I was positive I had seen all I needed to on the subject. The genre even had its own parody in Walk Hard with a drug-crazed John C. Reilly rampaging through the streets half-naked, overturning cars. But in Crazy Heart Jeff Bridges and writer/director Scott Cooper demonstrate that even the most worn cliches are good for one more spin if they are executed with the attention to detail shown here, and for the most part Crazy Heart works, even when you hear the same old plot creaking away under the surface.
Jeff Bridges plays Bad Blake, a country music has-been currently playing dives and bowling alleys, treading on his fading fame for all the free drinks it can buy. Bad Blake has been circling the drain for a long time before the movie starts and the majority of the film is a waiting game to see when and how Bad is finally going to hit bottom.
The film succeeds most in these early sequences, documenting life on the bottom rung of the showbiz ladder. It is here Bridges provides a master class in acting, playing this shambling wreck of a man without a trace of vanity. All the details ring true, from the way Bridges loosens his belt at every opportunity to accommodate his expanding gut, to the way his groupies have started to creep into their mid-forties. I particularly enjoyed the way that Bad, even at the bottom, retains the ego of someone who knows he is the best. Watching him wrangle with a condescending roadie over his sound mix is one of the film's highlights.
We watch as Bad attempts to navigate through the days spending as little time as possible sober, but without getting too drunk to stand. At the start of the film, Bad is still clinging to his status as a functioning alcoholic. He may have to slip back stage during a performance to dive retching, head-first into a garbage can, but he fishes his shades out of the vomit, wipes them off, and troops back on stage to finish his set.
In all of these scenes Bridges is utterly convincing, never playing up the alcoholism, instead playing the gifted man whose personality and talent are warped by his addiction. Unlike other great actors like Russell Crowe or Johnny Depp who seem to morph into different people with each role, Bridges always seems to be playing Bridges. It is not until we look back over a career that encompasses roles as diverse as the President, Starman, and The Dude that we realize his range. Bridges is an actor deserving of the national treasure status applied to the likes of Streep and DeNiro.
Into Bad's life come two people who break up what was certain to be an uninterrupted slide into oblivion. Colin Farrell as Tommy Sweet, Bad's former back-up musician turned superstar, and Maggie Gyllenhaal as Jean, an aspiring music writer looking for an interview with the old legend and a potential love interest. Colin Farrell's scenes work better, with the hot shot young star defies expectations by being a pretty nice guy. Tommy harbors a lot of admiration for his former boss despite what was clearly a grueling time working for him in the old days. Bad Blake is in no condition to accept generosity and can only seethe with bitterness and humiliation when Tommy offers to let Bad open for him. Bad's unconcealed irritation when Tommy joins him on stage for a duet is priceless.
It is worth noting that with his quietly engaging supporting turn here, along with his quality performances in The New World and In Bruges, Farrell has turned his career around. His presence in a film once screamed, "Avoid at all costs!" as he starred in such disposal dreck as SWAT, Daredevil, and (shudder) Alexander. Now his name on the credits promises superior work.
It is in the scenes with Maggie Gyllenhaal that the film steps wrong and never quite finds its footing again. I've been a fan of Gyllenhaal's in the past but she seems lost in this part. Maybe the script is to blame since it requires her to be both a clear-eyed realist and a romantic fool. Gyllenhaal eyes seem to shout from behind the character that she is smarter than the woman she is playing. We keep waiting to find out what is wrong with this woman that causes her to trust Bad so ill-advisedly, and it's frustrating to watch a character who has no inkling of disasters we can see coming a mile away.
Contrast this with the relationship between Marisa Tomei and Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler, for example, and it throws Crazy Heart's flaws into sharp relief. In that film Marisa's stripper understood Rourke's down-and-out wrestler from the start and was painfully reluctant to let such a damaged man into her life. But you could also see why she felt for the big lug, and how the situation in her own life that was not so different from his. You bought it top to bottom.
In Crazy Heart Gyllenhaal's writer, a woman who has already survived one bad marriage, recognizes Bridges as a mess from the start and still she falls for him like a star-struck teenager. I'm not saying that it is impossible for such a pretty young thing to find something appealing in the over-the-hill star who can still write a beautiful tune, especially when said star is played by someone as charismatic as Bridges. But here we have a man who is soaked in alcohol 24/7 and who wakes up each morning lying on the bathroom floor whimpering like the foot of Death is pressing on his neck. It takes a certain kind of woman to look at that and see a babysitter.
It doesn't help matters that Robert Duvall is on hand in a small part to remind everybody about Tender Mercies, his flawless film about another has-been alcoholic country singer. Films like that and The Wrestler cast long shadows over Crazy Heart. They dug deep on larger themes of loss, love, understanding, success, and regret. Crazy Heart touches on those themes as well, but only glancingly. There is an effective scene where Bad calls an estranged son he hasn't spoken to in decades. It works, but only as an example of an obvious plot device, well-executed, never mustering anything as delicate, and poetic as this scene.
Verdict: Jeff Bridges makes this worth seeing all by himself. It is a standout performance in an already distinguished career. Outside of his work the film never goes as deep as it could, and the romantic scenes fall jarringly flat. Yet there is still enough to admire in the authentic portrayal of the country music scene as well as some wonderful original music, so that Bridges is not completely on his own. 7 out of 10.