“Crazy Heart” was called up from the studio minor leagues this Oscar season when Fox Searchlight couldn’t find much in their year to push for awards. They sniffed out gold in Jeff Bridges’s portrayal of a boozy, greasy, at-the-end-of-his-rope country singer, hurrying “Crazy Heart” into release to roll around in the assured accolades. And Bridges is exceptional here; it’s the movie itself that’s less urgent and awkwardly defined, throttling Bridges’s impressively discombobulated performance, leaving one to wonder why there’s even a plot to “Crazy Heart” in the first place.
Working the bars and bowling alleys of the southwest, country legend Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges) has lost himself to alcoholism and overall cigarette-stained bitterness. Agreeing to an interview with Santa Fe reporter Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal), Blake falls for the vulnerable young lady, finding a sense of domestic peace with Jean and her four-year-old son that he missed out on while working to build his career. Faced with debt and encroaching health issues, Blake is forced to work with his former protégée, country superstar Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), who offers his old friend a shot at a real payday in exchange for songwriting assistance.
Based on a novel by Thomas Cobb, “Crazy Heart” is at its best when floating around Bad Blake’s cluttered world of protracted failure and self-destruction. A charmer with the help of well-timed fandom, Blake has subsisted on drink and cruddy tours for most of his life, burning on the fumes of his dwindling popularity and the lifelong love for music. It’s a complex character of disease: Blake’s stubborn and unchallenged, comfortable with discomfort because it provides armor to defend against outside disturbances, only permitting intimacy for his vices.
How Jeff Bridges conveys this grizzled disintegration is one of those break-of-dawn pieces of acting that makes one just stand back in awe. Bridges is traditionally the superlative element of any film he appears in, but his read of Blake’s misery is a precise symphony of congestion, irritation, and depression. It’s a multi-faceted performance needed to convey not only Blake’s awful habits, but his inviting ways with women, honed from four divorces and a trail of groupies. Bridges cooks in Blake’s weathered skin, expressing tremendous unease and frustration through a series of grimaces and groans when the words often fail the singer. The actor also handles stage duties capably, giving a special life to Blake’s catalog of beloved country tunes, either through disdain or boredom, or occasionally using the time in the spotlight as a confessional booth to pry open his heart. I wouldn’t call the performance revelatory for Bridges. It’s merely routine virtuosity.
Writer/director Scott Cooper fits “Crazy Heart” with an itchy sweater of a plot, having Blake fall in love with Jean, developing a taste for domesticity, only to find himself sabotaging salvation by repeating past mistakes. The film’s literary roots pronounce themselves in the characters (Robert Duvall also appears as Blake’s bartender confidant), who push too hard on the story, rendering the sentiment and heartache synthetic. The melodramatic rest stops also derail the oddly comfortable mood established by Cooper in the first reel. “Crazy Heart” is best when stalking Blake, observing the crusty singer deal with the humiliations and opportunities of his curdled life. There’s a hypnotically tousled reality to the man that could fill up an entire movie, nudging “Crazy Heart” toward cinema verite magnificence had the film squirmed out of its sleeper hold of dramatic routine. The picture only really comes alive pushed down in the gutter with Blake, examining his dwindling interest in living.
Shot gorgeously by Barry Markowitz, who captures a southwestern splendor to counterbalance Blake’s profound shadow, “Crazy Heart” is perhaps more poignant in fragments than as a whole. Still, Bridges is worth the price of admission, giving the juicy role of Bad Blake the needed coagulation to maintain the film’s brittle arc of redemption. “Crazy Heart” didn’t bowl me over, but if this is the vessel that brings Bridges to the forefront, I fully support it; the performance is excellent, and the actor legendary.