A film review by Craig J. Koban February 18, 2010


2009, R, 112 mins.


Bad Blake: Jeff Bridges / Jean: Maggie Gyllenhaal / Wayne: Robert Duvall / Tommy Sweet: Colin Farrell / Manager: James Keane

Written and directed by Scott Cooper / Based on the novel by Thomas Cobb

Before going into CRAZY HEART I have read many pundits that seem to have simplistically labeled the film as “this year’s THE WRESTLER,” but with a country music singer.  As much as I usually loath such comments that tend to compartmentalize films, I am sort of in agreement.  CRAZY HEART has the unfortunate position of being released a year after Daren Aronofsky's critically lauded effort (it was one of the truly finest films of 2008 and was the filmmaker’s greatest effort thus far), and even though the films’ subject matter could not be any different, the overall story arcs and themes could not be any similar.  Upon close scrutiny, THE WRESTLER found a more satisfyingly nihilistic core with its material, whereas CRAZY HEART – for all of its noble and honest intentions – plays things a bit too methodically, too predictably, and, by the end, a bit too neatly as well.  

However, the musical-drama – written and directed by former actor Scott Cooper and based on the 1987 novel of the same name by Thomas Cobb – is nonetheless as poignant little indie film that shows an uncommon eye for the nuances and authentic character details that allows for the film’s cast to really come to the forefront and shine.  Cooper also does a decent job of tapping into the movie’s themes – albeit of the derivative kind – of a grizzled veteran whose prime years are well behind him and how he finds renewed solace and redemption in his life via the pretty and younger woman that serves as his muse.  Even though THE WRESTLER told this same story with a much more devastating emotional wallop (unlike Cooper’s effort, Aronofsky never tried to conciliate audience’s expectations in the final reel), CRAZY HEART modestly succeeds because of the strength of its fringe characters and the actors that completely submerge themselves within them. 

“Bad” Blake (Jeff Bridges) is a former country music legend that has allowed himself to hit the lowest of the low points in his life:  He’s nearing 60, divorced four times, broke, washed up, drives a beat up pick up truck, lives in shabby motels, is dreadfully unhealthy, and a pathetic drunk.  Whereas in his touring glory days he used to play to masses by the thousands, he can barely command the attention of trailer trash patrons of the bowling alleys and bars that his agent places him in.  The people in these places still like the man, even though he is caked with the scent of whiskey and cigarettes and, at one point, needs to leave in the middle of one set so he can go into the back alley and throw up.  “It’s good to be here,” he tells one crowd, “at my age it’s good to be anywhere.” 

Blake has one thing going for him: he is an unparalleled songwriter and his able to write songs with the spontaneity and soulful inflections of a poet.  He also served as a mentor in the past to a young, handsome, hot shot country singer named Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), whom has since become a Garth Brooks-esque music sensation, selling albums by the millions and playing to sold out arenas that house his adoring fans.  Tommy lives a life of a mega-affluent, mega-popular, mega successful celebrity (full entourage, full tour roadies and trailers...the whole nine yards), but he has always respected Blake and views him as his mentor.  He frequently offers Blake chances to follow him on his tour to serve as an opening act as well as giving him the opportunity to write new material for him, but Blake – being a fiercely stubborn and obtuse lout – refuses what he considers “hand outs.”  Instead of returning to some semblance of his past glory, Blake would rather wake up in a pool of his own sweat and vomit than sell out. 

Just when things could not look any direr a beautiful young woman enters his life: She is Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a journalist with the obligatory heart of gold that is looking for a great story on Blake.  Before meeting her Blake’s only romantic involvements were one-night sexual flings with the floozies he met at the bars he played at, but Jean seems like a whole other different kind of woman.  Upon their first meeting in Santa Fe and their first interview in his flee-bag motel, Blake is instantly smitten with her, which leads to one of the film’s great lines (“Do you know how bad you make this room look?”).  Outside of her looks, Blake seems also drawn to what an intelligent, well spoken, and sophisticated woman Jean is (she also shares his appreciation for the finer aspects and roots of country music).  

Amazingly, Jean too finds herself attracted to Blake (for reasons the film never thoroughly or plausibly relays; just what does attract her to this physically repulsive man outside of his music?).  They soon begin a relationship and within no time she introduces Blake to her four-year-old son (Jack Nation), who is the same rough age as Blake’s son when he left him during one of his previous marriages.  Of course, Blake finds himself drawn to the boy, whom serves as a surrogate son to him in many respects, and the two do hit it off rather winningly.  One of the sad ironies of the film is that notions of fatherhood blind Blake: Being with this boy and his mother gives him the false impression of reclaiming a past life that he abandoned decades ago.  Unfortunately, Blake’s predilection towards the bottle and his overall self-destructive lifestyle does not lend itself to being a normal and well adjusted paternal figure, which spells certain doom for any chance of happiness. 

How utterly scandalous is it that Jeff Brides has never won an Oscar in his 40-year acting career?  He certainly takes top prize for being one of the cinema’s most undecorated performers.  Described once by Pauline Kael as one of the “most natural and least self-conscious screen actors that has ever lived,” Bridges' indelible resume bares little need for embellishment.  Consistently reliable, stalwart, and always memorizing in an under-the-radar manner, Bridges has indeed been nominated four times (for 1971’s THE LAST PICTURE SHOW, 1974’s THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT, 1984’s STARMAN, and 2000’s THE CONTENDER.  CRAZY HEART all but reaffirms that this is indeed his time for Oscar glory as it is a career-defining role.  

His portrayal of Bad Blake relishes in the performer's complete lack of movie star vanity, not to mention that it also typifies how he can so thoroughly immerse himself in a role with such a commanding authority.  What makes Bridges so convincing here is how well succeeds in distilling this character down to all of his disagreeable elements as well as the finer ones: this is a grizzled, worn down, and entirely inebriated honky tonk man that oftentimes can't walk for more than a few paces without stumbling, but he is also a kind and generous figure that has a calm spoken affability (watch how Bridges brings this aspect to the table in some sublime moments with Jean’s son; they are magic).  Most importantly, Blake has a soulful, melancholic, and beautiful manner of creating songs.  Bridges’ bravura and superlative work here – destined to win Academy’s biggest acting prize – proves unequivocally how a towering lead performance can trump a film’s otherwise derivative story. 

The other actors are also solid; Maggie Gylenhaal may be saddled with grieving, frustrated, and noble minded “girlfriend character” that I seen in too many movies before, but she embodies Jean’s subverted torment and concern for Blake better than just about any other actress could have.  One performance that initially proved distracting but ultimately really won me over was Colin Farrell’s work as Blake’s protégée, and I really loved how the screenplay (and Farrell’s cat-like dexterity to finely regulate just about any role he tackles) never makes Tommy a one-note cretin or requisite A-hole celeb that’s out to spurn those under him.  Instead, he is seen as a nurturing, decent minded, and compassionate influence in Blake’s life: he really wants to help him not out of purely selfish reasons, but because he sees a man and friend in need.  Rounding out the cast is a fairly underused, but fantastic Robert Duvall playing one of Blake’s old buddies (he also served as producer for the film).  His appearance may also have film aficionados thinking of the own actor’s role in 1983’s TENDER MERCIES, also about a washed up country bumpkin singer and a woman that tries to empower him for the better. 

The music of the film is also a treasure, with killer lyrics destined for Oscar Gold by T-Bone Burnett and the late guitar/songwriter Stephen Burton (they collaboration of the film’s pinnacle song, "The Weary Kind," has a sorrowful and heart-wrenching power), but I just wished that CRAZY HEART spend a bit more time on the intricacies of what goes into writing everlasting music like, say, how THE WRESTLER managed to comment on the backstage politics of professional wrestling.   Again, CRAZY HEART just feels like THE WRESTLER-lite: it’s story feels too familiar and formulaic (an old, pathetic, and once successful alcoholic tries to overcome odds via the love of a good woman), not to mention that it never really grabs a hold of the central tragedy of Blake as a doomed character the same way Aronofsky did with his damned persona.  Also, a head-shakingly manufactured climax involving Blake and the young boy can be seen from a mile away, plus the story tacks on a lousy and false ending that tries too hard to put everyone’s mind at ease (the film had just the right ambiguous and sad ending just before it cuts to this scene; you'll know what I mean when you see it).  

Yet, despite its problems, CRAZY HEART deserves to be seen because of the enthralling presence of Jeff Bridges, recently turned 60, that shows that even an actor approaching the twilight of his career can still hit every correct note in a richly textured performance.  There is not one false beat from Bridges’ anywhere to be seen in CRAZY HEART: this is his film to channel and command.  

Here's hoping the Academy sees this too. 

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