Crazy Heart is something special – one of those quiet, slow-burning character studies that'll restore the faith of viewers who think they no longer make movies like they did in the '70s.
It starts out in well-worn, hurtin'-song territory, with a grizzled, hungover musician named Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges) driving a beat-up Chevy across the craggy terrain of the American Southwest. He arrives in a parking lot, empties out a jar of his urine on the asphalt and limps towards the bowling alley where he'll play his next gig.
Crazy Heart is one of those slow-burning character studies that'll restore the faith of viewers who think they no longer make movies like they did in the '70s.
Without having to tell us, Bridges and writer-director Scott Cooper make it clear this outlaw hit bottom a long time ago. In the bowling alley, the waitresses refuse to run Blake a tab, and when he lies alone in his room at the Starlight Motel, he balances a glass of bourbon on his doughy belly as though it were an extension of himself.
At 57, Bad Blake has got $10 to his name, and has left many casualties on the road behind him, including groupies, ex-wives and a grown son. On stage, Blake wryly sings, "I used to be somebody, but now I am somebody else," and when he ducks into an alleyway to puke mid-set, he emits grunts and groans of self-loathing.
Something has got to give, and it does when an aspiring music journalist named Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal, at her earthy, compassionate best) arrives at Blake's motel for an interview. Even though Blake's half-soused and splayed out in a bath towel, the two have immediate chemistry. He dodges one question by saying, "I wanna talk about how bad you make this room look," and it's a sure bet he'll be penning some songs about her in the near future.
This setup might sound as old as the lyrics to every heartbreak honky-tonk song you've ever heard, and indeed, there's a plot development late in the movie that you'll see coming far in advance. But Cooper and his actors have sharp enough instincts to keep the material from ever feeling maudlin or clichéd. Gyllenhaal — always a marvel — takes a role that has needy doormat written all over it in fresh new directions. This wounded single mother falls for Bad Blake, but she's also clear-eyed about his addiction, at one point recoiling from his boozy-breathed attempt at a kiss. Likewise, a reunion with Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), the successful protégé who's long since surpassed Bad Blake, doesn't arrive at a predictable outcome.
Cooper displays great insight in his depiction of the musician's life. Crazy Heart shows Blake barking orders at his sound-check guys, and pauses to offer a glimpse of how crummy it is to be one of his ill-prepared pick-up musicians. This care is evident on the soundtrack, too, where the songs — written by T-Bone Burnett and Stephen Bruton and performed by the actors — are always integral to the story. Tommy Sweet might have had a hit with Blake's Fallin' and Flyin', but it's only when Blake sings the lyric "Funny how falling feels like flying for a while," that you understand the dues the elder musician paid to write such a perfect line.
Throughout his impressive career, Bridges has been woefully underrated, in part because he's so relaxed on screen that it never looks like he's acting. The same is true here — he just shows up in his Kris Kristofferson beard and Waylon Jennings beer gut and he is Bad Blake, the walking embodiment of Sunday Morning Coming Down. There's no hammy chest-thumping; Bridges is smart enough to take the trickier route, subtly showing the flickering embers of talent, wit and charm that would make this down-on-his-luck character attractive to someone like Jean.
There's been a recent spate of great male performances at the movies, but watching Crazy Heart, I couldn't help thinking I'd trade all of them for just a few more minutes with Bad Blake. Bridges gets the tiny details right, whether he's absentmindedly fidgeting with the garnish in his drink or keeping his belt buckle undone to accommodate Bad Blake's girth. Though he doesn't possess an ounce of the vanity that's usually required to win an Academy Award, it'll be a cryin' shame if Bridges doesn't score an Oscar this year.
Crazy Heart opens Jan. 15.
Lee Ferguson writes about the arts for CBCNews.ca.