Another Oscar season, another veteran actor bares his chest and roars again. In Crazy Heart, Jeff Bridges follows in the footsteps of Frank Langella in Starting Out in the Evening (2007) and Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler (2008), as a once-famous figure and family failure who rediscovers his spiritual mojo through the love of a woman.
Bridges plays Bad Blake, a 57-year-old former country star who, 30 years past his prime, is reduced to driving his pickup truck around the country, playing one and two-nighters at dives for people who remember his handful of hits. With his paunchy gut, straggly grey beard and chain-smoker's rumble, Bridges performance is disturbingly authentic.
You can almost smell the body odour and bourbon breath and feel a prickle of uneasiness at his drunken, oversized movements and glazed stare. He inhabits the character, in everything from the way he wraps his hands tenderly around a glass to the bow-legged way he sways across a room, one part lurch, two parts swagger.
That said, Bridges's big performance takes place in the context of a relatively minor movie. First-time director Scott Cooper adapted his script from a 1987 novel by Thomas Cobb (inspired by the career of the late Waylon Jennings). The film, rolls through Southwest scenery and settles in cheap motels with an ambling rhythm. The plot is reminiscent of Horton Foote's 1983 film Tender Mercies (based on a Larry McMurtry novel). That film earned an Oscar for Robert Duvall as a washed-up country singer who has a relationship with a younger woman and her son. Duvall also has a role here, as a reformed alcoholic bartender who is Bad Blake's friend.
Every fallen sinner needs a redeeming angel. She's incarnated here by Maggie Gyllenhaal as Jean, a reporter at a San Diego newspaper, single mother of a four-year-old boy. She comes to Blake's motel for an interview while he's sitting drinking and watching porn, but he recovers quickly, and is candid and gentlemanly. The one subject he won't discuss is his former protégé, a singer named Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell) who's now a big headliner. Blake makes a gentle come-on: "I want to talk about how bad you make this room look."
The two feel a connection, or at least a shared sense of loneliness and resignation, though the motive for her attraction never feels sufficient. Yes, Blake has a roguish charm, but it's a big leap for a single mom to take up with a four-times-married, itinerant, alcoholic country singer who is old enough to be her father. It doesn't help that Jean's back story is so vague or that Gyllenhaal's straight-forward performance suggests little emotional complexity.
Of course, every cowboy has to move on. Blake's manager calls; he has a gig for him, opening for Tommy Sweet. Blake declines, then reluctantly agrees. Farrell (also a solid singer) plays a pony-tailed and ear-ringed new-country artist, who tries to mend fences with his old friend. Bridges and Farrell have one adroitly staged scene together, where Sweet tries to help his old mentor by walking on during Blake's set. Blake is simultaneously annoyed and flattered, offended at being upstaged but pleased to be recognized.
From there on, Crazy Heart goes through its paces with the predictability of the changes in a country tune, as Blake undergoes a series of crises - medical, creative and familial - until he's compelled to confront a lifetime of boozy evasions.
One of the strengths of Crazy Heart is the authenticity of the songs written by T-Bone Burnett, Steven Broder and Ryan Bingham. They serve as homages to the poetic, alcoholic tradition of songwriting typified by Waylon Jennings, Townes Van Zandt and Billy Joe Shaver. They're all about bits of wisdom wrung from heartache, often of the self-induced variety. In a musical genre where emotional authenticity is essential, Bridges is a great enough actor to make us believe these songs could be his own.