Review: Crazy Heart
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"You know you're in a state when you hand-pour your pee on a bowling alley"
There's a shot in a scene near the beginning of Scott Cooper's Crazy Heart that's so jarring that it has to have been a choice, but I can't for the life of me unpack what it means. Jeff Bridges plays forgotten country legend Bad Blake, drunk and down on his luck, a one-time great forced to play tiny New Mexico bars for tiny over-the-hill crowds. As he cruises into town in his rusty Suburban and empties out his piss bottle, he realizes that his manager has booked him to play in a bowling alley, where he begins to drink prior to the show. There's a shot of him at the bar that is an exact visual echo of Bridge's most famous character of recent years, the similarly booze-addled Dude from The Big Lebowski, famously bellying up to a bowling alley bar, talking to a cowboy. It's odd and unmistakeable, as Bridges' the Dude in the Cohen Bros. first-cult-then-full-blown classic dopey caper movie has become iconic, his sozzled, affronted complaints as firmly lodged in the minds of movie folk as Travis Bickle's spookyisms or the monologue by the guy in Network who got mad and told everybody to go yell out the window.
Where the Dude's drunk and drugged wanderings seemed blessed, though, by a cinematic ray of Private Eye light that kept him safe through to the end of his caper, Bridges' Bad Blake is broken down, on the way out. A member of his backing band that he had mentored, Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), has moved on to find incredible success on his own and exists, but is unwilling to do an album of duets that Blake and his lizard-skin booted agent need to pull his career out of the toilet. He meets a young journalist (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who herself has had a rough patch and their bruised romance sees Blake back on some kind of road to life.
Bridges inhabits the role as thoroughly as is seemingly possible - he quite simply is Bad Blake. Much of the music (composed by T-Bone Burnett, who among other things did the music for the Coens' O Brother, Where Art Thou?) Bridges sings himself and he's got a not-half-bad country voice, but it's in the busted-boot gait and whisky-sipping slouch that Bridges carves the character out. The rest of the film is almost as good as he is. Cooper's script has a habit of freely dipping into the well of cliché - the whisky soaked forgotten crooner lost in the shadow of inauthentic "new country", salvation and sobriety at the feet of a sad single mother who doesn't want to be hurt again - but then at the last minute, swerving away into if not original then certainly less clichéd territory. Tommy Sweet, when he makes his entrance into the story, is not half the villain the first half of the film would have you believe, and Gyllenhaal's single mom is something a hair's breadth more interesting than a sucker for punishment, loyal to a fault. The film could have been a disaster, and at times it's half-way there, but there are enough smart choices in the script and good performances from interesting actors that the film ends up (for the most part) overcoming its own flaws.
It does country well, and it's as authentic as a film can be to a genre of music (like punk, or metal, or rap) that is itself so utterly cliché ridden that arguments over whether so-and-so is "real country" are a common fervent pastime for fans and the artists themselves. Bad Blake seems as much of a real, breathing human being as Merle Haggard or Waylon Jennings, which is obviously somewhat of a back-handed compliment. Crazy Heart's story is an old one: a busted down, down and out nobody screws up, hits bottom, and becomes somebody again. We've seen it before, but it has enough soul and Bridges' Blake has enough human hitch in his step, that it manages to be moving, if not refreshing. 7/10