Sunday, January 24, 2010

'Crazy Heart' is among Bridges' finest work

By Steve Crum

Jeff Bridges does justice to a beautifully written lead role in Crazy Heart. As down and nearly out country western singer Bad Blake, echoing Hank Williams, who performs both between and during booze binges, Bridges’ performance is the stuff of which Oscars are won.

Director Scott Cooper adapted Thomas Cobb’s novel about a more than middle aged country singer (Blake) who was a near great in the good old days. At his peak, Blake likely toured with his band and manager; and probably played stadiums, fairs, and even headlined showrooms in Vegas. We don’t know much about his past. But we know his lifestyle now is picking up gigs wherever.

The film opens as he drives his old car to a dive of a bowling alley in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and checks in as the lounge act therein. The local musicians know him well, and he recognizes them more when he is sober. He checks into a nearby motel, retires to his room, and the whiskey slams begin. By show time, he barely makes it to the bowling alley stage. Performing without retching during a song is the challenge. So goes Bad Blake’s daily regimen.

A local newspaper reporter, Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal), wrangles an interview or two from Blake, and the story predictably goes from there. Jean’s fascination with the legendary singer turns to sympathetic adoration. At first, Bad treats her as a groupie, which in several ways she is. A mutual admiration and love develops, particularly after Blake meets her young son. There is a particularly moving scene late in the film involving Blake and her son at a shopping mall.

Thanks to Jean, Blake tries to sober up and regain a life lost. He tries to reestablish relationships with a surrogate son of sorts who was once one of his sidemen, and is now the major country singing star Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell). There are good scenes with his former partner, played by Robert Duvall. There are effective, original songs written by T-Bone Burnett.

The story is simple, really, but Cooper’s direction is praiseworthy, conveying both the claustrophobic privacy of Blake’s drinking contrasted with the vast desert landscape (gorgeously photographed by Barry Markowitz) of the nearby, real world just outside his sleazy motel room. However, it is Bad Blake’s tortured complexity that sells Crazy Heart, and Jeff Bridges captures Blake body and soul.

Thinking of memorable portrayals of alcoholics in films, several are recalled: Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick in The Days of Wine and Roses, Ray Milland (The Lost Weekend), Nicholas Cage (Leaving Las Vegas), Susan Hayward (I’ll Cry Tomorrow), and even Dudley Moore as a comedic lush in Arthur. Jeff Bridges is included in this group, not necessarily at the top of the group, but at the top of his acting game. On second and third thought, Bridges deserves to be placed at the top of the group as well.

Crazy Heart definitely ranks among Jeff Bridges’ finest work, including: The Big Lebowski, Wild Bill, The Fisher King, Starman, The Fabulous Baker Boys, Tucker: The Man and His Dream, Tron (yes, Tron!), and The Last Picture Show. After four Oscar nominations, he will surely--and deservedly--grab the proverbial ring with Crazy Heart.
On an A to F grade scale: A-
Link here to the Crazy Heart trailer:

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