"I apologize for being less than what you probably expected me to be."
In director Scott Cooper’s “Crazy Heart
,” Jeff Bridges plays Bad Blake, a creatively-stifled, self-destructive former country music star drowning himself in whiskey and self-pity before finding a second chance in the love of a woman and her four year-old son. If the story sounds familiar, it should. In 1983, star Robert Duvall and screenwriter Horton Foote won well-deserved Oscars for their poetic, understated work telling almost the exact same story in “Tender Mercies
.” You won’t mind, though, because both “Crazy Heart” and Jeff Bridges are nearly as good. And if some kind of loyalty to The Mighty Duvall makes you resistant to checking out this near-retelling, fear not. He’s not only on board as a producer but brings great color and character to a supporting role, as well. He even sings a bit!
“Crazy Heart” defines the idea of a simple story well told. One glimpse at the trailer and we all know where the plot beats will lead, at least through the second act. We know that Bad Blake and small town reporter Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal) will fall in love and that this is certain to bring about some kind of personal and professional reformation for the has-been booze hound. What we don’t know is “how” that story will be told or where it will end up, and it’s in the telling that “Crazy Heart” soars.
The performances are uniformly excellent. As a mother who’s uncompromising when it comes to the well-being of her son, this is the first time I’ve liked Gyllenhaal in anything,
and Colin Farrell is nothing short of superb as country superstar Tommy Sweet, a genuinely decent man confident in his success, but as Blake’s one time protégé, understandably uncomfortable overshadowing his former mentor. The complicated, prickly but still affectionate relationship between these two men is a small but exceptionally well done subplot that eventually pays off handsomely.
As Blake, a gruff bear of a man with an unruly beard and unattractive beer gut who only comes alive when yelling at his agent over a life spent travelling the dusty highways of the Southwest from one lousy gig to the next, Bridges has lost none of his effortless charm and still smokes a cigarette like a Fabulous Baker Boy
. Thanks to a great piece of writing, Blake’s also a character whose layers never stop revealing themselves. And thanks to a performance likely to win the actor some long overdue recognition from the Motion Picture Academy, this character – in both good ways and bad – never stops surprising.
Bridges and Ferrell both sing their own songs – all of which are excellent and written by Stephen Bruton and T-Bone Burnett. The real star of “Crazy Heart,” however, is a lyrical screenplay adapted from a novel of the same name by the film’s director. Each scene flows effortlessly, one into the next and never once falls into the many clichéd traps of this genre.
The one leap of faith the story requires you to make is how quickly Bad and Jean get together. He’s a 57 year-old alcoholic wreck and she’s a thirty-something divorcee single mother. Had she held out a little longer it wouldn’t have upset the structure of the narrative in the least and would’ve gone a long way towards helping us to buy into what she saw in him had he been forced to show a little persistence.
As the motion picture business moves further and further away from mature stories involving Christianity, it should come as no surprise to learn that “Crazy Heart” can best be described as a secular re-telling of “Tender Mercies.” That’s not a knock, though, just a fact. Whatever’s missing in the area of spirituality is more than made up for through the humanity of the characters and how invested we are in Bad’s search for his own dignity.
Where “Crazy Heart” gets it just as right as its predecessor, is where it counts most, in the closing scene. Twenty-five years and a dozen-plus viewings haven’t dimmed the emotional impact of “Tender Mercies” in the least, especially those touching final moments. To this day just the thought of Duvall’s Mac Sledge and that young boy tossing a football – the quiet power of it all and how it catches up to you long after the credits roll, still manages to move me. And it’s the same with Bad Blake. The magnitude of where this character ends up is performed and presented with a touching subtlety that gives “Crazy Heart’s” final moments an unforgettable grace note.