Jeff Bridges gives his best performance yet as country musician Bad Blake
If “Avatar” proved one thing, it’s that a film doesn’t need an original plot to be terrific – if something else can make up for the copied story. But in the familiar tale of a faded star dependent on alcohol, searching for redemption through a good woman, overcoming those conventional origins calls for something more heartfelt than blue aliens. The necessary tool for that challenge is the original special effect: a wholehearted, captivating performance from a truly talented actor. Last year this happened with Mickey Rourke in the masterpiece “The Wrestler,” and this year it occurs with Jeff Bridges in “Crazy Heart.”
Bridges portrays 57-year-old country music singer Bad Blake, a former big-time artist now so far diminished in his career that he’s relegated to driving himself state to state in his beat-up, 30-year-old truck, playing in bowling alleys and bars for barely enough money to get by. With nothing but his guitar and a bottle of McClure’s whiskey by his side, the four-times-married Blake has no one left for him except some aging fans at his small out-of-the-way gigs. But he makes it a point that even if he’s drunk, he’ll never miss a show.
After playing at one of the bars, he meets reporter Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a lonely, single mom in her 30s who automatically connects with Bad after interviewing him. A romance soon blossoms between the two, and Jean breathes new life into the almost completely burnt-out musician. This leads to Bad collaborating a bit with his former protégé Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), who has become the biggest sensation in country music due to Blake’s tutelage, even though Bad was left in the dust after Tommy’s rise. Despite that, Bad now tries to establish a modest life with Jean and her unbelievably adorable four-year-old son Buddy, in hopes of avoiding the pitfalls of his continuous drinking and finally attaining a true loved one to hold on to in his life.
Admittedly, there’s not a whole lot of story driving this movie, because it’s the characters and the outstanding performances that carry it. Viewers watch intently as Bad struggles with his career, his relationships, his alcoholism and with putting his life back on track. Bridges elevates the film above other such movies however, expertly shaping the wasting-away musician into a flawed, but redeemable man whom we honestly care for and want to see ultimately triumph, mostly because of his excellent acting.
Having received four Oscar nominations over the years, it seems like Bridges will finally win one this time around, as he single-handedly turns “Crazy Heart” from a pretty good film into a great one, and rightfully deserves the award. Bad Blake feels like a mixture of Bridges’s The Dude from “The Big Lebowski,” Rourke’s Randy ‘The Ram’ from “The Wrestler,” and country legend Johnny Cash in his later years, all blended up into a gravely, weary-voiced Bridges who’s half charmer and half washed-up drunk.
Endeared by the heart of Bad ol’ Mr. Bridges is Gyllenhaal, who I’ve always had a strange affinity for even though she was the only actor hampering “The Dark Knight.” Here, she impresses and performs with more genuine emotion than usually seen in her roles. She’s a very sweet woman, especially in her tender conversations with Bad and the loving, playful moments with her little boy. Her chemistry with Bridges feels so real that we never have a hard time believing their relationship.
Filling the role of sympathetic bartender quite sufficiently is Robert Duvall, who gives off a warm supporting performance as one of Bad’s closest friends. But it’s Farrell who’s a pleasant surprise, proving that he finally seems to be consistently living up to his potential as a very skilled actor. Advancing from just playing a memorable character every once in awhile, he’s had several praise-worthy roles recently, which all show he’s finally coming into his own. And who knew, he’s a fine singer as well.
Bad’s music plays an important part in the film, and there are plenty of scenes where he’s performing his wonderful songs. But these aren’t the type of country tunes usually heard today – this is the “old style” of country in the vein of Johnny Cash and Hank Williams. I actually enjoy that type of music a lot, and fans of the genre will love the original songs written by T-Bone Burnett (who also composed the music for the similarly-styled “Walk the Line”). At the very least, the songs can be appreciated for the sentimental lyrics and sound paralleling Bad’s journey, and for Bridges’ distinctly rich voice. The music is so strong that I’m seriously considering getting the soundtrack – the main track “The Weary Kind” is even the top contender for best original song at the Oscars.
With the superb main performance and terrific music being the highlights of “Crazy Heart,” first-time director Scoot Cooper wisely chose to let his competent script play out in a naturalistic, calm manner, with a surprising turn of events in the third act that adds more engrossing poignancy. A defeated Bridges wrenches viewers’ emotions in this section, and Cooper keeps us constantly engaged through his minimalistic approach and lack of flashy style, focusing centrally on Bad and his bittersweet journey. With Bridges’s soon-to-be Academy Award-winning achievement as Bad Blake pushing forward the film, it’s easy to overlook its recycled plot.
Whether you’re just a fan of Bridges, movies about musicians, stirring character studies or any role an actor really puts his heart into, this is a performance to go crazy over.
Three out of Four Stars