Crazy Heart (2009) dir. Scott Cooper
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Robert Duvall, Colin Farrell
By Alan Bacchus
So I’m a little late in viewing this film, but I did manage to see it before the Oscars and thus be comforted by the fact that the Academy made the right choice of Jeff Bridges as Best Actor.
The film feels as much a film about Jeff Bridges, as it does the character he plays. Sure Bridges may not be an alcoholic, or a has-been music star, but much like the casting of Mickey Rourke in ‘The Wrestler’, it’s a film where character and actor seem so precisely tied together it’s difficult to associate character from actor it dominates our viewing experience.
Cooper concertedly eschews plot to concentrate on the character of Bad Blake, and thus the actor Jeff Bridges,for better or worse avoiding the structural trappings of the rise and fall of musicians or the comeback plotting of The Wrestler.
Jeff Bridges’ Bad Blake is a charming old country music veteran, an aging has been on a tour of bowling alleys and other pathetic low paying venues. At his first gig we see him stumble out of his truck, pour out a canister of piss which he obviously had been urinating in while on the road, and making ass out of himself with the locals. He dismisses his polite backing band who’s been hired for the night and delivers a drunken sloppy performance. But peaking through the slapdasherie is an infectious country charm, delightfully warm enough to satisfy the dedicated crowd. And he even caps of the night by sleeping with a old groupie. This is the life of Bad Blake.
But when a young single mother and semi-professional journalist Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal) enters his life, Blake looks like he just might change for the better. But writer/director Cooper subverts the expectations and allows the Blake’s story to play out against the prevailing wind of these expectations, yet fulfilling meaningful closure. When we first meet Jean, she’s clean-cut, responsible, young, ambitious and smart. And so, despite his shameless pick-up attempts he actually manages to sleep with her. But instead of becoming just another groupie Blake develops a real relationship with her and her four year old son.
Even as Blake continues to drink and drink and drink Jean stays with him and barely even attempts to correct his lifestyle. Cooper engineers a comeback attempt for Blake when his old partner Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell) who has become a superstar in the business asks Blake to tour with him and write songs in an effort to recapture the real heart of country which he has lost. Blake’s drunkenness eventually catches up to him in the third act when an incident with Jean’s son causes an irreparable rift in their relationship.
From a distance, Blake barely has a character arc, he begins and ends in virtually the same place, with only some added life experience along the way. We see him go to AA, and get himself clean to appease Jean, but in the end we don’t ever believe he’ll fall back off the wagon again and go back to his self-destructive ways. This is why ‘Crazy Heart’ works and why Bridges’ performance is a triumph because Bridges makes us love Blake despite all these contradictions.
The gaping black hole of the picture is the ease with which Blake achieves his goals. Specifically Jean who accepts Blake’s hospitality too quickly when she, as a single mother, should be suspect of a drunk driving her kid around. But then again this is the world of rural America, the country music culture, where people drive drunk and without seatbelts. So maybe Jean’s acceptance of Blake is not completely out of the realm of possibility. But even Blake's revitalization of his career is handed to him requiring little sacrifice.
Bridges alone manages to surmount these failings. And for once the Best Song Oscar, which has historically been the worst excuse of the Academy to pander to television audiences, actually is a deserved winner of the award. The song “The Weary Kind” is not only a magnificent country anthem, it’s represents a key beat in the film and the closure of Blake’s character arc.