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Crazy Heart (2009)

| May 28, 2009 | 0 Comments

Jeff Bridges has been a movie star all my life – I mean literally all my life – he had his breakthrough in The Last Picture Show in 1971, the year that I was born. In 38 years, Bridges has become one of our most dependable actors, turning in a gallery of great performances, not one of which he could look back and be ashamed of.

Bridges has a natural ease on the screen, the kind of presence that Robert Mitchum and Tommy Lee Jones have, in which he never seems to be acting. It always feels like the camera just found him. That kind of presence is rare and it has gotten him a great deal of praise but very rarely any true accolades. He has been nominated for the Oscar four times but has never won. Maybe that comes from the fact that his performances are never showy. Most actors who receive awards stand out, but Bridges blends in, always seeming like an organic part of the film rather than a front-and-center component.

His laid-back style is at the center of Scott Cooper’s Crazy Heart which is easily the best performance of Jeff Bridges’ distinguished career. He occupies a character that should be riddled with cliches, but isn’t – a drunken country singer. He plays Bad Blake, a once-great country star who’s best days are long gone. Once he filled stadiums to thousands of screaming fans and now he spends his Saturday nights occupying whatever stage will have him – as the movie opens he’s playing a gig at a bowling alley.

Blake’s life is a sad country song. At 57, he is a drunk, a veteran of four failed marriages and the father of a kid he hasn’t seen in 20 years. He still gets noticed by his older fans, and to those fans, he is gracious. He has lived a hard life that has left regret and a lot of broken hearts in its wake. He chooses to keep his first name anonymous. When a journalist asks for it he tells her “I’m Bad Blake. My tombstone will have my real name on it. Until then, I’m just . . . Bad” Everyone calls him Bad. In a way, I think the name is penance, a constant reminder of the heartache that he has caused in his life.

Blake may be a drunk with a sagging career but he isn’t bitter. We expect a man in his condition to be angry old SOB, but he is actually a very nice guy; sweet, vulnerable and a little bit needy. His face tells us what we need to know. Here is a very sad man, a regretful soul with sad eyes that reveal a weary heart. His heavily-lined face shows the years of booze and hard living and his voice is a low growl rubbed raw by gallons of whiskey. We rarely see him without a bottle in his hand, he is an alcoholic and it is his addiction that has left him lonely and destitute – he doesn’t appear to have a home and lives in a string of unkempt motel rooms.

His lifestyle is also causing a strain on health. He not only drinks but has chain smoked himself into emphysema. Blake is not a bad guy, but he is a picture of self-destruction. An opening scene, in which he exits his 1978 Suburban with a milk jug filled with urine and empties it onto the ground (he travels a lot), is incredibly symbolic – this man is, literally, pissing his life away.

What comes out in his songs are a sort-of Greek chorus to the life he lives off-stage. He sings songs like “Somebody Else” which contains the lyrics “I saw you shed a single tear. Still I can’t peal away the years”. The movie wouldn’t work without songs like this, they tell us that his life comes through his music. It also wouldn’t work if Bridges couldn’t sing. He has a natural voice in which he doesn’t just sing the lyrics but actually believes what he is singing. Blake’s craggy voice, beaten raw by booze, gives those songs a kind of authentic feel.

The relief of Crazy Heart is that this is not a portrait of blind self-destruction, it is the story of a man weighed down by regret who wants to find some form of redemption. That redemption comes – as all stories like this must – from the heart of a good woman. She is Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a journalist who interviews Blake for a local magazine. There is an unexpected charm about this poor soul and it captures her heart, especially when he breaks away from the monotony of the standard interview questions and tells her “I want to talk about how bad you make this room look.” This charm breaks Jean’s journalistic integrity and is made curious by the fact that she admits that she is a magnet for men who don’t treat her right (from her failed marriage has come a son named Buddy). She young yet, she has been burned by men but still hasn’t acquired the thick skin that she needs to resist them. Blake wouldn’t seem to be any different, his irresponsible life should indicate that she is setting herself up for another heartbreak (she eventually gets one) but Blake has an open heart and she falls for him anyway.

The rest of the story finds Blake attempting to reform his hard-living while trying to establish broken ties and reestablish his damaged career. Blake’s pride is as much to blame for his self-destruction as anything else as when he gets an offer to write songs for Tommy Sweet (Colin Ferrell), a kid that Blake once mentored who is now a rising young country music star. The look on Blake’s face when he is asked to be the kid’s opening act is one of damaged pride and the realization of how far he has fallen.

What amazes me most about Crazy Heart is how far the screenplay is willing to go to avoid cliche. Stories like this have been written over and over since the beginning of the movies, but Cooper’s screenplay (from a novel by Thomas Cobb) manages to create real characters who are not manipulated by the plot. We expect that Blake’s drinking will lead to the standard scenes in which he is stumbling on the stage but, aside from a moment when he must excuse himself to make use of the back alley garbage can, he remains a wonderful presence on the stage. Blake’s fate is expected but his journey getting there is not. When he makes a serious mistake involving Jean’s son Buddy there are consequences but not what we expect and it leads him into a kind of redemption that – in a lesser film – would have seemed tacked on. When we get to the end, it is hard to believe that Blake is going to be able to sustain a clean life but we sense that he is smarter about the damage that he has caused to other and to himself.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2009) View IMDB Filed in: Drama, Musical