Perhaps it’s the tool of the truly lazy critic to merely point to another movie as basis for describing the movie he’s currently reviewing, but it’s damn near impossible not to draw parallels between Scott Cooper’s Crazy Heart and Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler. The comparison isn’t just apt thematically, but reflective of the awards season: it’ll get a best actor nomination for the lead and a deserving best song nomination. It’s a tried and true song we’ve all heard before: an old salt rumbling on the road, clinging to a life of desperation and destructive behavior because it’s the only one he knows, finding new loves and trying to reclaim old lives, que sera serve me a beer back. And I don’t offer that up as a negative; truth be told, there’s a reason why it’s a popular seed from which to sprout a story. Like a home run derby, it allows your lead muscle to step up to the plate and just fucking knock the ball out of the park and into the goddamn lights surrounding the stadium. Jeff Bridges — and lest you forget that’s four-times-over-four-decades Academy Awards nominee Jeff Bridges — is simply wonderful. In a fair world, he would win the rich-deserved accolades for his magnificent, career-defining performance. But as Bad Blake can tell you, this is long from being a fair world.
When it comes to good ol’ country music, Bad Blake is as real a deal as it gets. Cottoned in the haze of cigarettes lit from the cherry and a constant fog of brown liquor, Blake stumbles from shitty saloons to bowling alley gigs. The backing band’s different but the songs are all the same. He’s been doing this forever, like the ‘79 Suburban that putters and ports him from show to show. One of his proteges, Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), found fame in the new country movement and sells out arenas, while Blake plays a podunk backwater in Bumblefuck, Arizona. Sweet wants Blake to write him new songs because he respects his mentor as much as original recipe KFC. Blake just wants his due and to keep on trucking. And so the film becomes about Blake slowly changing his old ways so he can eke out five or six more good years on that dusty trail.
If Crazy Heart were just about the country music and Blake’s coming to terms with his own mortality — both as a man and a performer, it could quite possibly be a perfect film. However, the entire film is entangled with a romantic plot that’s like some sort of super advanced parasitic virus. It’s killing the entire movie, but it’s absolutely the only other thing the film’s got keeping it alive. While playing a show in Santa Fe, Blake agrees to an interview from local reporter Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Inexplicably but expectedly, they end up together, because that’s what it says in the script. And while I can understand and appreciate the parallels between Blake’s old life and the mistakes he made and him trying to atone for the sins of the past, it’s the weakest and most contrived part of the story. It’s necessary as fodder for Blake to grow and mature — even well past his ripe prime — but it’s about as convincing as a death-bed repentance from a fat man on his third heart attack. It brings down the rest of the picture, no matter how precociously goddamn adorable Jean’s little boy is.
The love angle seems so busted because of how incredibly right they got the music. As soon as the film made mention of the new country star Tommy Sweet, I waited patiently to see who would strut on out in alligator boots. And once I saw it was Colin Farrell, I was prepared for some snakish douchebaggery. And I was wrong — pleasantly and absolutely wrong. Tommy recognizes that Blake gave him everything he is and that he’s doing a phonier version of that, but he sold out for a nice profit. I expected Tommy Sweet to be a brash arrogant jerk, cutting down the old dog for not being able to see the error of not following the new ways. But he’s honest, without being fawning or sycophantic either. Blake wants to cut another duet album, but Tommy tells him the record label won’t let him, despite how hard he fights. Tommy’s got a career and a family, so he’s got to do what’s best for them first. When Tommy lets Blake open one of his shows, meaning a fatter paycheck for the getting-by strummer, Tommy comes out and accompanies him on one of the songs. Where it could have been used as a dog-pissing contest or a standoff in another film, it’s actually a nice way to show Tommy helping out his mentor. He bows to Blake’s greatness, tells the crowd that he’s the man who taught him all he knows, and essentially helps him sell more records. If anything, Tommy Sweet shows just how stubborn and immature Bad Blake is.
The supporting performances are great. Colin Farrell continues to surprise me and despite a kind of spotty accent, he’s very good as Tommy Sweet. Robert Duvall has entered that phase in his career where he can pretty much do whatever the hell he wants and however he wants, and it’s a solid role for him as the bartender/buddy to Bad Blake. There aren’t many guys who can play wise old owl to Jeff Bridges, and you’d be hard pressed to find someone better than Duvall. Maggie Gyllenhaal is adequate — which sounds like such a worse slam than it is. It’s just such a bland one-note character that no actress could have done better, though virtually any actress could have played the part of a single mom trying not to make the wrong decisions. Paul Herman, who’s spent most of his life playing second-tier goombas, is fantastic as Blake’s manager Greene, again playing a character that could have been a sycophant but instead tears angrily into Blake like an old married couple.
But really and truly this movie belongs to Jeff Bridges. Looking back over his career, he’s had some monster roles, and they’re extremely varied. Bad Blake is a foul-mouthed, self-entitled drunk, but oozing with charm and sweetness. He spends so much time drinking and just abiding that it almost comes as a shock he’s an alcoholic. It’s a little like telling Falstaff he needs to go to rehab. I mean, Blake’s such a constant drinker that you can’t imagine him without a tumbler of brown in his hand, but he’s not staggering around or slurring his words. And while any actor can move you with an impassioned speech or a tunic-rending lament, Bridges pulls it off with just subtle nuance and steady character. There’s no huge acting moment for him to evolve as a character, he just does it because it’s so ingrained. And there aren’t many actors with the necessary gravitas to pull it off that simply.
The other star of the show is the music. I’ve never been much of a country music fan, but I’ve at least aged enough not to make that blanketing statement of “Yuk! Country!” like a child facing a plate of vegetables. So while I’m ill-equipped to recognize the differences between alt-country and new country and old country and who’s blues-infused and whathaveyou, I know what I like, and these are some excellent songs. For the most part, it’s the same four songs, but each one performed in completely different ways — hallmarking the character changes and advancements as the movie progresses. The song that’s getting all the nominations is “The Weary Kind,” penned by Ryan Bingham and T Bone Burnett. Listening to that song evolve over the course of the film is why you write films about musicians in the first place. If it loses out to “GuidoGuidoGuidoGuido Guido” from Nine, I’m going to crash a pick-up truck full of drunk rednecks into a musical theater.
Crazy Heart probably won’t get the love The Wrestler did, because despite the salty dog falling for a single mom blue-collar endearment message, Aronofsky did a better job cobbling a tanned ‘roid monkey and an aged stripper together. And honestly, it’s not a better movie. What is getting recognized is of far superior quality. Bridges puts in a better performance, and the music from Crazy Heart is integral to the plot, and not just slapped on because the Boss is the fucking Boss like in The Wrestler. Scott Cooper won’t necessarily get the crazy Lee Daniels level of huzzahs from having a movie with one solid performance and rightfully so, but he still does a splendid job. This isn’t one you’re gonna necessarily want to dash into theatres to see, but catch it if you want to see some solid acting.