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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Review: Crazy Heart (2009)

* * *

Director: Scott Cooper
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Maggie Gyllenhaal

It's a good thing that Crazy Heart stars a beloved actor who had previously spent decades going home empty handed on Oscar night, because I can't imagine that it would have received much notice otherwise. Well, the music might have, but the film itself? The plot is so familiar that it ought to become standardized. Still, what it lacks in originality, it makes up for in heart and a lot of that comes down to this year's very deserving Best Actor winner Jeff Bridges.

Bridges stars as Bad Blake, a down and out country singer/song writer who is down to his last ten bucks and suffering through a demoralizing tour that requires him to play in bowling alleys. His best days are long, long behind him but the fans who've stuck around certainly seem dedicated, smiling and basking in his presence even when he hands things off to the backup band so that he can go outside to throw up. Crazy Heart focuses on some of the excesses inherent in life on the road, but it certainly doesn't glamorize them, as a shot late in the film of Bad lying on a bathroom floor with vomit caking his beard can attest.

While playing in Santa Fe he meets Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a reporter to whom he grants an interview. She wants to talk to him about Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrel), his former protege, now a big star and the very last thing Bad wants to talk about; he wants to talk to her about, well, her and after he lays on a bit of charm, she decides to make him the next in the series of bad decisions that have shaped her life. They fall in love and he gets along well with her son, Buddy, who at four is the same age that Bad's son was the last time he saw him; but Bad's alcoholism undercuts the relationship at every turn. He can't get through a day without drinking, which dooms this new relationship just as it has doomed his career. If he can get a handle on it, though, he might just be able to salvage one of those things.

Bridges is one of those actors who always seems perfectly at ease and natural in his roles. He's not a someone who builds a performance around a Big Actor Moment, but rather builds it out of a series of smaller, subtler moments. One of the best scenes in the film is when Bad makes a phone call to his son, who reacts with understandable distrust and hostility. Bad tries to have a friendly conversation with him, suggesting that they might get to know each other, proceeding with a kind of naive optimism that demonstrates that even though he's been living hard, he's not a hard person. There's a quiet desperation to the way that Bridges plays the scene; a sense of sadness and guilt but also of hope. Bad Blake could have been nothing more than a standard issue washed up hero, but Bridges invests so much in him that he becomes more than that. He's not a "character type" but all too human.

Gyllenhaal is a good match for Bridges in many respects, they both seem to approach characters in a naturalistic way, but one of the problems I had with the film is that I didn't really believe in their characters' relationship. For one thing, it's pretty obvious where the story is going so it's hard to invest yourself in it; for another it kind of makes her look like an idiot. She spends a lot of time talking about how the most important thing for her is that she does what's right for her son, but then she puts herself in this position that can only end badly for both herself and her son. She loves Bad, but she's also a character who is supposed to have been around the block a couple of times and she should know better. I didn't believe in the relationship and because of that it was the least engaging part of the film for me and since it takes up so much of the story, that's a lot of time to be disengaged. I recommend the film on the strength of Bridges' performance but with the caveat that the film itself isn't anything particularly special.


The Film Connoisseur said...

I really wasnt impressed with this one. Its so much like The Wrestler..but without the charm. In my mind, Bridges didnt get an Oscar for this, he got for everything else he's done in the past.

Candice Frederick said...

everyone keeps saying bridges is the best thing about this film, whcih i woudl doubt. but i do agree that when i first heard abut this movie, i thought immeditely about the wrestler and mickey rourke, and even a little about Walk the Line. bridges is an amazing actor, so i am glad he won the oscar. i think i may rent this film though. i have yet to see it.

Norma Desmond said...

@Film Connoisseur: I dunno, I thought his performance here was excellent. If his win was a "make up" Oscar it certainly isn't as glaring as some others in recent years.

@Candice Frederick: It's definitely one that you can put off seeing until its on DVD.

The Floating Red Couch said...

Putting aside Jeff Bridges, who we can all agree is a hunky, down-homey dynamo, the movie is unique in my mind because of the issue of alcoholism. We've all seen movies about alcoholics, and we've alls een how the disease is treated blatantly and head on. But Crazy Heart treats alcohol like another character, and its even-handed at that. Sometimes alcohol works for you, sometimes against you, but eventually too much will becomes an unhealthy crutch.

While we're on topic: shameless plug for my Jeff Bridges vs. Kurt Russell Grudge Match (hope you don't mind Flick Chick *snoogens*) http://www.floatingredcouch.com/2010/03/announcing-jeff-bridges-vs-kurt-russell.html

Anonymous said...

really well said.