Sturm and twang: Crazy Heart ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 9, 2010)

Ev’rything’s agin’ me and it’s got me down
If I jumped in the river I would prob’ly drown
No matter how I struggle and strive
I’ll never get out of this world alive

-Hank Williams

I think I stumped Mr. Google. For the life of me, I can’t pin down the name of the artist who wrote and/or sang my favorite country song of all time. Let me qualify that. That would be my favorite country song title, which is “I’m Gonna Build Me a Bar in the Back of My Car and Drive Myself to Drink” (I believe it came out circa ‘78, if that helps jog memory). At any rate, after watching Scott Cooper’s Crazy Heart, I can visualize the film’s protagonist, “Bad” Blake (Jeff Bridges) as that songwriter. This guy is a country song-with a pocketful of whiskey and a lifetime full of heartache and regret.

Look in the dictionary under “has-been country musicians” and you’ll see an 8×10 of Bad Blake. Take a little whiff of the accompanying “scratch’n’sniff” card, and you’ll catch a pungent mélange of stale beer, cigarettes, musty nightclubs and cheap motel rooms.

Tooling around the Southwest in his antiquated, “lucky” Suburban, Blake’s life is a never-ending series of shithole one-nighters (in the film’s opening scene, his name gets second billing to a league tournament on a bowling alley sign, which reminded me of the visual gag from This is Spinal Tap with the amusement park marquee touting “Puppet show…and Spinal Tap”).

Keeping his road expenses to a minimum, he tours solo, using pickup bands to back him at each location. Eschewing rehearsals and sound checks, he spends his off hours brushing up on his ornithology (e.g. Wild Turkey, Old Crow and Eagle Rare). Somehow, he still manages to get through his performances. Oh, on occasion, the band has to vamp while he slips out to vomit in the alley-but that’s showbiz.

His love life is in similar disarray; it is a trail of broken hearts, one-night stands with groupies, an adult son whom he has not seen since infancy and a handful of exes (who may, or may not, live in Texas). His romance with the bottle is his longest-standing relationship.

Enter a small-town newspaper reporter named Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a divorcee with a 4-year old son. A piano player who is backing Bad at one of his gigs asks Bad to grant her an interview as a favor. Preferring his fans to remember him as he was “back in the day”, the initially reluctant interviewee becomes much more enthusiastic once he meets the winsome young woman. Sparks fly, and the heat, as they say, is on.

Bad starts feeling much more enthusiastic about life in general; he surprises his long-suffering booking agent by agreeing to bury the hatchet with Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), a former protégé who is now a country superstar, and open a stadium show for him. Things are looking up. But as anyone who has seen more than one film about an alcoholic knows, it’s about this point where you begin to brace for the fall (“How’s he going to fuck it up? Pass the popcorn”).

So, is this just another “narcissistic, self-destructive musician who has hit rock-bottom but just needs the love of a good woman to put him on the road to redemption” story? Well, yes. And no. Writer-director Cooper’s script (adapted from the original novel by Thomas Cobb) does travel down some dusty and well-worn country roads, but thankfully avoids some of the usual clichés before it takes us home. For instance, there are no barroom brawls, and nary even one scene shot in a trailer park (that was refreshing). Yes, we’ve seen this story before, but we don’t always get to see it with such a great cast.

There’s a lot of Oscar buzz about Bridges’ performance, although if truth be told I wouldn’t necessarily consider it the best thing he has ever done. But if anyone deserves a statuette for a consistently fine body of work, it would be Jeff Bridges. He’s got a good shot; if history has taught us anything, it’s that Oscar loves drunks (and nuns, according to Kate Winslet in a classic episode of Extras).

Robert Duvall has a small but memorable role; he and Bridges are a joy to watch together. Gyllenhaal is excellent, although her part feels a little underwritten. Bridges does his own singing, and he isn’t half-bad. Crazy Heart may be a small and simple film, but it has a big heart…like a good country song.

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