"Crazy Heart" opens with our hero, washed up country music star Bad Blake, dumping a jug of urine in the parking lot of a bowling alley in the middle of nowhere, New Mexico, quickly clueing you in on Bad's lot in life. What follows is a fairly standard story of redemption made worthwhile by a go-for-broke performance from Jeff Bridges.
It's impossible to watch a bearded, shaggy-haired Bridges and not think of Jeffrey "The Dude" Lebowski, especially when he plants himself on a bowling alley bar stool. But to Bridges' credit, Lebowski's shadow doesn’t linger. Bad Blake is another animal entirely, a once-great country music singer who's fallen on hard times, whiling away his days with telenovelas, McClure's Whiskey and women who are as far beyond their prime as he is.
Bridges vomits on his sunglasses (easier than you'd think), slumps to the bathroom floor in his underwear, his body bloated and soft. He punctuates the action with knowing and exhausted looks, pained pleas and a fair amount of contempt, much of it self-directed. Elevating Bridges' performance further is his ability to actually play and sing, invaluable in a movie about, well, a singer.
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Bad Blake stands in sharp contrast to this season's other rootless road warrior, George Clooney in "Up in the Air." As a man with no real troubles, past or regrets, it's hard to get invested in the efforts of Clooney's character to make a change. Bad's four failed marriages, estranged son and financial woes make him a more identifiable character. When journalist Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal) enters his life, we see a man with a chance to be saved from a life we know he hates.
Their ensuing romance is as inevitable as it is doomed. Gyllenhaal shows she knows it with every squint, furrow, flared nostril and deep sigh. When her better judgment is proven correct, she's every bit as angry with herself as she is with Bad.
The casting of Colin Farrell as Tommy Sweet, Bad's former protege who moves out from his shadow to become a star in his own right, feels like a bit of stunt casting. Farrell is fine, if a little overwrought, and he sings surprisingly well. Still, one can't help but think that Ryan Bingham, the young man who wrote "The Weary Kind (the theme from Crazy Heart)," might have been a better choice. In his small role as a bandleader who backs up Bad, he is appropriately discomforted and awed by his idol. More importantly, it would have allowed for his own full-throated version of the song to be featured in the film rather than over the credits.
That missed opportunity aside, the music put together by T-Bone Burnett (the man whose "O' Brother Where Art, Thou?" soundtrack sold 7 million copies and won a mountain of awards) is up to his lofty standards. The songs throughout provide clear -- but not overly pedantic -- hints to Bad's past.
First-time director Scott Cooper has said that he wanted to tell his story "in a way that evoked the 1970s, in which characterization and behavior were forefront." True to his word, and with little choice given his paltry $7-million budget, he stays close to the action without crowding his actors, letting them do the work.
"Crazy Heart" is a familiar story told well, that succeeds thanks to one of the best performances of Jeff Bridges' career and a slate of songs that help propel the narrative without the film devolving into a bad country music video. Both Bridges and "The Weary Kind" picked up Golden Globe nominations on Tuesday and will likely continue on to the Oscars.
Crazy Heart opens Wednesday in New York and Los Angeles