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Crazy Heart (2009) ***

February 9, 2010

written by: Scott Cooper (from a novel by Thomas Cobb)
produced by: Robert Duvall, T bone burnett, Judy Cairo & Rob Carliner
directed by: Scott Cooper
Rated R for language and brief sexuality.
112 min.
U.S release date: December 16th, 2009 (limited)

Long before he played The Dude in the cult-hit “The Big Lebowski”, Jeff Bridges has been delivering consistently solid work for the past three decades. From “The Last Picture Show” to “Fearless”, he has always caught the attention of the viewer not because of any particular method he has but moreso due to the fact that he simply and naturally embodies a character. Even in some of his more mediocre films (“Blown Away” or “K-PAX”) he is still the best part of the film. Such is the case with “Crazy Heart”, which is a wonderful film with some solid performances that slightly suffers from a formulaic script. But Bridges has already won awards for his work here, so it’s obvious that his excellent work rises above any of the film’s flaws.

The beginning of the film finds Bridge’s 57 year-old country singer, Bad Blake ambling around the southwest from one run-down gig to the next. We get the idea that this country legend once had something strong in the music scene but at some point his drinking, chain-smoking and womanizing got in the way of it all. Despite all this, the man never misses a show. In what state he shows up at a show, is another thing entirely. His surly, crusty demeanor doesn’t help much with his interaction with people either, so it’s no surprise that he has few people in his circle of pain. It would appear he has more in common with his thirty year-old pick-up since they’re both ready to call it quits at any given moment.

Things start to change for Bad when he agrees to an interview with Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a  young, Santa Fe reporter  as a favor for her uncle, his piano player. She spends time before and after his local gig, asking him questions about his music/ While he, with his incorrigible charm,  proclaims  it took a beauty such as hers to help him see how bad the room he’s staying’ in is. For reasons unexplained she falls for him, knowing full well he comes with a warning label. Bad opens up to her about where his heartbreaking songs come from “My life, unfortunately” and the son that he hasn’t seen in twenty-something years. In return he gets a taste of the domestic life he missed out on as he gets to know Buddy (Jack Nation), her four year-old son, who’s father is out of sight. In his state and with his history though, it’s impossible for Bad to see him living such a life unless he makes some serious changes.

Several elements come crashing together to make Bad realize that such a change has to take place now or literally, never. With his finances and health in ruin, he finds a career boost when his manager forces him to work with former protégée turned country superstar Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), who offers him a stadium gig in Arizona and eventually some real money writing songs for him. While he’s getting’ his head around all of that, his addictions find him rock bottom barely holding on. It takes his loyal barkeep buddy, Wayne (Robert Duvall), who’s been in Bad’s nasty shoes, to help him clean up his act.

Bad soon sobers up to an aching reality that inspires him to create some new music. He winds up writing some of the emotionally raw material that made him famous and starts to sees the fruitful seeds of  his talent once again. It may seem like his fall and rise takes place too quickly but then again there’s only so much realism that can fit in a two hour movie. “Crazy Heart” may exude familiar territory of a worn-down icon finding his footing but it successfully lives and breathes on the talents of real and natural actors.

This is quite a directorial debut for character actor, Scott Cooper, who also edited and adapted the screenplay from a novel by Thomas Cobb. He knows that the film will fail or succeed with the right actor in the lead and in recent interviews has said that he wrote the script with only Bridges in mind. Anyone who had been around an alcoholic can see how real Bridges is here. Despite playing such a damaged and damaging character (both to himself and those around him) Bridges expressions and subtle mannerisms bring a genuine sympathy to the role. It could be the role of his career if he hadn’t already given such solid performances but either way, you’d be hard pressed to try and think of another actor who could handle the material so well.

Bridges is supported by three actors that work with him perfectly. While it is kind of annoying to see a woman that could probably be his daughter fall for Bad, Gyllenhaal does bring the right amount of empathy to her own damaged role. She does do a good job diverting attention to Bridges, it’s still a surprise that she earned an Oscar nomination. It’s no surprise though that the always reliable Duvall had a hand in producing this film since he won an Oscar for portraying a character similar to Bad Blake in 1983’s “Tender Mercies”. What is a delightful surprise is Ferrell as the mainstream country star. It’s refreshing to see an absence of cockiness in his character as he gives his mentor a generous opportunity. Plus, for an Irish lad, he effortlessly sings just as good as Bridges does throughout the film.

While it is an actor’s film, it would fail if it weren’t for the involvement of three fantastic musicians. All the songs are written and produced by singer/songwriter/producer T. Bone Burnett , singer/songwriter Ryan Bingham and the late musician Stephan Bruton. Both Bruton and Burnett have worked with countless recording artists while 28 year-old Bingham (who plays the singer/guitarist in Bad’s back-up band at a bowing alley gig) debuted in 2007 sounding like the raspy-voiced son of Tom Waits and Steve Earle. It’s the perfect hybrid of talent to bring just the right sound and tone to the story.

At first, I though “Crazy Heart” was going to be last year’s version of 2008’s “The Wrestler” but it’s nowhere as bleak and leaves the viewer with a more hopeful note, thankfully a logical one at that. If you’re a fan of any of these actors, you’d do well to catch this film while you can regardless of whether or not you like country music. Like the best country music songs, “Crazy Heart” is all about true characters and how they suffer and succeed and survive.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Lauri permalink
    February 9, 2010 4:02 pm

    David – my question for you is – why didn’t Colin Farrell receive an “above the credits” credit the way the other supporting actors (Gyllenhaal and Duval) did at the end of the movie? In fact, Farrell doesn’t even receive a “below the credits” credit – we don’t see his name until the rolling credits. This had me curious.

    With that asked, I agree with what you wrote in your review. Jeff Bridges made me forget that I was watching Jeff Bridges play a role. He is Bad Blake. Before I saw the movie, I wondered if Bridges was receiving awards for his body of work; but after watching the movie, I see that he is being awarded for an amazing performance.

    I enjoyed the supporting performances, especially Colin Farrell.

    I’m not a country music fan, but the music works so well throughout the film that I almost forgot that this wasn’t my type of music.

    I highly recommend this movie, despite some of the formulaic elements.

    • February 9, 2010 4:06 pm

      I do know that Colin Farrell did this film pro bono. No paycheck at all. Farrell has said in interviews that he loves singing, and just wanted the chance to work with Bridges.

      Also, if you give a good look through IMDB, you’ll see that it is not uncommon for actors go unaccredited for performances in films.

      Bridges was good in “Crazy Heart” … however I still see his forthcoming Oscar as a body of work deal.

    • David J. Fowlie permalink*
      February 9, 2010 7:56 pm

      What Paul said. Farrell has gotten crap for being a party guy and all that but if you look at his roots, it’s clear that he never signed up to be a star. Just an actor. In fact the trailer for his new film, directd by Neil Jordan, looks pretty cool.

      I’m not really crazy about this whole “body of work” term….I get it but I don’t like it. It’s too dismissive. Is it the actor’s (or director, remember Scorcese with “The Departed”?) fault that such a term is being thrown around for a certain performance? Sure, I believe that Bridges should’ve received an Oscar by now but I don’t believe that dimishes his role as Bad Blake. I’m not saying anyone here is saying that calling his win for Bad Blake diminishes his work at all but I can help that that’s how it sounds. “Body of work” seems to cheapen an actor’s previous work, saying “all their other work is good but we’re gonna lump them all with this current good work and give him/her an award”. That’s not cool. The work should stand on it’s own and receive it’s own merit.

      I vehemently dislike the kind of Top 40 country music that’s been insanely popular for the last couple decades. But I am crazy about what I perceive as true country….Hank Williams, Sr, Willie Nelson, Patsy Cline, Emmylou Harris, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson and the like. Those artists drew from their lives just as Bad Blake did, cuz they had no choice.

  2. Lauri permalink
    February 9, 2010 5:17 pm

    Paul – thanks for the info about Colin Farrell. It makes sense now, re: the credits, hearing that his work in the film was done pro bono. Very cool. I really enjoyed his performance.


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