There is a lot of self-awareness going on in “Crazy Heart,” a movie about an alcoholic old-school country singer named Bad Blake (played by a grizzled Jeff Bridges) who’s seen better days.
It’s something that most movies of its ilk are missing and its one of the keys to its modest success.
Bad isn’t the typical deluded former star that keeps pining for a taste of his former success. A world-weary 57, he’s got a big beer gut that he ain’t afraid of. As the movie opens, he’s desperate to get a free beer at the bowling alley he’s playing at that night. He’s also enough of a pro to step outside mid-song, throw up in the trashcan, and still make it back to the stage for the last chorus.
“Crazy Heart,” written and directed by Scott Cooper from a novel by Thomas Cobb, is a closely observed character study. Without Bridges’ confident, naturalistic performance, there would be no film. Like Robert Mitchum before him, Bridges makes it looks easy.
For a film that traffics in the familiar country music theme of the long and lonely road, however, Cooper’s movie does hit a couple of surprising notes—its supporting characters understand their own situations as well.
Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Jean, a Santa Fe newspaper journalist and single mom with an appreciation for Bad’s music and his venerable charm. When she crawls into bed with him, she knows exactly what she’s getting herself into. But a one-night stand turns into something else when Bad rings her up again.
Bad knows she’s way too young and there’s no future in pursuing a relationship, but he does it anyway because it feels right. That seems to be a common thread for Bad. Touring the country by himself in his pickup truck, he lives on the fringes of society, but it’s a life he’s chosen.
His confidence as a songwriter may be all but shot, but his protégé, the successful new-country singer Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), needs some new tunes. The publishing deal and songwriting royalties could earn him a pretty penny, but Bad’s pride is such that he won’t even duet with Tommy on one of his new-country hits at a big outdoor concert.
It’s these complicated matters of dignity that form the heart of Cooper’s film, which is also his directorial debut. Like 1983’s similar “Tender Mercies” starring Robert Duvall (who shows up as an old bartender pal in “Crazy Heart”) as another down-and-out country star, the plot unfolds slowly. The movie’s pace echoes the life of its main character—unhurried.
Bolstered by his new relationship, Bad regains some of the spirit and determination that he once had. With it, “Crazy Heart” picks up some momentum just when it looks like it might settle into too a lethargic state. Bridges carries the movie on his back and makes Bad Blake a guy worth getting to know.