Crazy Heart (2009): Folk Tale, Starring Jeff Bridges in Bravura Performance

Crazy Heart Crazy Heart Crazy Heart Crazy Heart Crazy Heart poster


Artistically speaking, “Crazy Heart,” the new indie starring Jeff Bridges as a broken-down, hard-living country music singer, is not a major film because it is too generically familiar.
That said, the film has at least three things going for it. First, it features a bravura, fully fleshed, cliché-free performance from Bridges, a four-time Oscar nominee, who should get an Oscar nod for his work here. Second, it marks the promising feature debut of writer-director Scott Cooper, better known until now as an actor.  And third, despite a familiar narrative, the movie is enjoyable, which you cannot say about most films this season, even the striking and original ones.
The story centers on Blake’s moral and identity crises, at the age of 1957, which is turning point in his life. Bridges imbues his performance as Bad Blake with richly comic, semi-tragic, semi-romantic touches, which remarkably is devoid of self-pity or pathos, and the same could be said about the whole movie, which steers clear of a melodrama. 
“Crazy Heart” is based on novel by Thomas Cobbs of the same title (which I have not read).  However, inevitable comparisons will be made with “Tender Mercies,” Bruce Beresford’s 1983 sensitive melodrama, starring Robert Duvall in his Oscar-winning performance as a boozy country singer. The link between these two films is further reaffirmed by the fact that Duvall plays a small part in the new picture and is also one of its producers; so is Jeff Bridges, for that matter.
Still handsome, sporting longish blond-brown hair, grayish full beard and a growing belly, Blake is a macho crooner with gusto, who has lived hard and played hard. No specific reasons are given to his current state, but we are led to believe that it’s function of his lifestyle, spending too many years on the road, and, more importantly having one too many drinks. A four-times married man, Blake has an estranged grown-up son whom he has not seen since the boy was four.
However, deep down he is a decent, good-hearted man, who is devoted to his métier, country music, and gives it all when performing to a small but appreciative audience in shabby night clubs in the Southwest, mostly New Mexico and Arizona.
Like other anti-heroes of his kind, Blake is in desperate need for redemption, salvation, and regaining of his self-worth. And like other similar stories, we know that his redemption will come from an encounter with as young, decent woman.  In “Tender Mercies,” that part was played by the lovely Tess Harper and in this picture, it is embodied by the ever-likeable Maggie Gyllenhaal, as Jean, a local journalist determined to discover “the real man” behind the legendary musician. 
In the early chapters, Blake is depicted a man who’s a victim of habitude. He is still living his life out on the road, playing long-ago #1 hits in third-rate beer joints and bowling alleys to aging crowds (that are as drunk and yearning as he is), while his fleeting fame slides rapidly into obscurity.  The highest goal he can aspire to is to open a big concert for his young protégé, Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), who learned everything he knows from Blake.  However, unlike Blake, Tommy managed to become rich and famous from his singing. The movie builds up toward an encounter between the two men and there’s some suspense as to what extent Sweet will reciprocate the favor and reboots Blake’s dwindling career. 
Unfolding in a familiar (but not schematic) way, “Crazy Heart” is a regionally grounded morality tale, depicting all the struggles and phases down the road of redemption. Since the outcome is predictable, the yarn is about the process–the journey–how Blake is made to learn the hard way just how tough life can be on him and on those around him.
In the first reels, one singing gig blurs into the next until one night in Santa Fe when Blake meets a local journalist named Jean Craddock and falls for her harder than the usual. Blake may not be a womanizer, but after each performance, an appealing older femme hits one him, and occasionally she succeeds in getting him into bed while drunk.
But Jean is different, and not just because she is young enough to be Blake’s daughter. A product of a bad marriage, with a history of bad men, Jean is now determined to be more careful in her choice of beaus. As a single mom, burdened with many regrets, Jean knows it would be foolish to believe in a real romance with Blake. But unable to resist his charm, she continues to see him.  A further cause to their evolving affair is offered by Jean’s young boy, who needs a father figure and immediately takes to Blake.
Predictably, Blake embraces the boy, offering him the kinds of experiences and joys that only a male figure can. Question is, can Blake, who barely keeps his own head above badly troubled waters, really take care of anyone else? And indeed, in one of his boozy and irresponsible days, Blake, sitting at a pub, accidentally loses the boy. Jean, freaking out, terminates the relationship abruptly.
Along the way, Blake’s effort to reconcile with his estranged son, when he calls him on the phone, out of the blue, is futile and he seems to accept that.
Bridges excels in offering a gritty, witty, darkly humorous portrait of a man, who is forced to come to terms with his human limitations, fully realizing that Jean may offer him the very last chance for redemption. 
Fueled by country rock, “Crazy Heart” features original songs from Grammy-winning and Oscar Award-nominated composer and producer T Bone Burnett (“Walk the Line,” “O Brother Where Art Thou?”) along with the late Texas songwriter Stephen Bruton.
The movie draws a nice parallel between Blake and his odyssey and country music as a genre, summed up in the expression, “Country music is three chords and the truth.“Crazy Heart” is like a popular and tender country song, laced with equal parts passion, humor, trouble, simplicity and repetition.
Bad Blake – Jeff Bridges
Jean Craddock – Maggie Gyllenhaal
Wayne – Robert Duvall
Bill Wilson – Tom Bower
Tommy Sweet – Colin Farrell
Manager – James Keane
Doctor – William Marquez
Tony – Ryan Bingham
Jack Greene – Paul Herman
Wesley Barnes – Rick Dial
Buddy – Jack Nation
A Fox Searchlight release of an Informant Media/Butcher’s Run Films production.
Produced by Robert Duvall, Rob Carliner, Judy Cairo, T Bone Burnett.
Executive producers, Jeff Bridges, Michael A. Simpson, Eric Brenner, Leslie Belzberg.
Directed, written by Scott Cooper, based on the novel by Thomas Cobb.
Camera, Barry Markowitz.
Editor, John Axelrad.
Music, Stephen Bruton, T Bone Burnett.
Production designer, Waldemar Kalinowski.
Art director, Ben Zeller.
Set decorator, Carla Curry.
Costume designer, Doug Hall.
Sound, Bayard Carey; supervising sound editors and designers, Andrew DeCristofaro, Paula Fairfield; re-recording mixers, Joe Barnett, Rick Kline Mathew Waters.
Line producer, Alton Walpole.
Associate producer, Gina Scheerer.
Assistant director, Kaaren Ochoa.
Casting, Mary Vernieu, Lindsay Graham; New Mexico casting, Jo Edna Boldin.
MPAA Rating: R.
Running time: 112 Minutes.