Okay, stop me if you’ve heard this one. A broken down, burned out, booze-pickled, emotionally incapacitated country music legend swerves across the Southwestern U.S. in a prehistoric GMC Suburban (I think) playing one-night-stands in gloomy bars and bowling alleys, while steering his life directly for a cliff, where he is apparently content to fly off the precipice fully aflame and end it in a pathetic, almost unnoticed, explosion.
Jeff Bridges is Bad Blake, the aforementioned country music legend. Blake has clearly enjoyed better times but has stopped writing songs, taken refuge in the bottle, and trolls the substrata of the entertainment world living on memories of hits past. Meanwhile, a younger protégé, Tommy Sweet played by Colin Farrell, has hit the big time on the strength of Blake’s songwriting talents. Blake seems bitter.
The inevitable romantic interest for Blake is Jean Craddock, played persuasively by Maggie Gyllenhaal, as a Santa Fe reporter sent to interview Blake before a local performance. She’s the mother of a four-year-old son, with emotional baggage of her own, but she’s drawn to Blake despite their age difference and the fact that, during most of the film, he looks as if he smells like a ripe wheel of cheese on a warm day. Still, against her better judgment, they become involved. And, heartened by the only emotional connection he’s felt in some time, Blake seeks redemption in, and for, Jean.
If this sounds like a song you’ve heard, or a film you’ve seen before, you’re right. You have. But you haven’t seen it done this well since Tender Mercies in 1983, which won Robert DuVall a Best Actor Oscar for his turn as the drunken, washed up country singer. Maybe not coincidentally, DuVall is an executive producer and supporting actor in Crazy Heart. This is territory fraught with potential cliché, and they didn’t manage to avoid them all, but they did skip the big one, and first time writer-director Scott Cooper does an able job of steering clear of the ones that could have made this just an adequate film. The screenplay was adapted from the novel by Thomas Cobb.
What makes this film a must see, however, is the performance by Jeff Bridges. It may be the best of his career, even though he’s been Oscar-nominated four times before. The minor surprise here is that both Bridges and Farrell are good enough singers to be convincing in their roles. Not a great singer, Bridges nonetheless has a smoke and whiskey cracked, but resonant, voice that at times reminded me of Kris Kristofferson. Except that Bridges carries a tune a little better than Kris.
Bridges turned 60 a couple of weeks ago, and looks pretty good. Bad Blake is 57 in Crazy Heart, and looks an unhealthy 77. Bridges is completely convincing as Bad Blake, a man on his last leg, soaked through with alcohol, and beaten down by his own hand. But he can still croak out a poignant lyric in a quiet moment and make you believe it. And his rowdy, drunken stage performances are just as well done, and comically sad.
The songs, by Stephen Bruton and T-Bone Burnett, sound like genuine country hits that you’d swear you’ve heard on a jukebox somewhere at some time. Stephen Bruton, who was a close friend and collaborator of Kristofferson’s for years, died in May 2009 of cancer, just as the film was completing production. The film is dedicated to his memory.
Robert DuVall takes on a small role as Houston bar owner, and Blake’s best friend, Wayne. DuVall is always quirky and fun to watch, even in a secondary role. My old friend Beth Grant makes a brief appearance here as well, as a one-night-stand for Blake just before he meets Jean Craddock. She is always memorable in whatever role she takes on, and this one is no different. She commands your attention whenever she’s in the frame, and is always willing to offer herself up for a comic moment. And you will laugh.
This film came very close to not being released at all. Its distributor, Paramount Vantage, folded its tent before the film was completed and her parent company, Paramount Pictures, had no interest in the film. But neither did they want to give it up to another distributor. It seemed destined for direct-to-dvd release. Some skillful negotiations by Scott Cooper’s agent finally worked out a deal for Fox Searchlight to handle distribution. And we’re all lucky for it.
It will be just fine on DVD when it gets there, but this film deserves its time on the big screen. It’s good enough, and it’s important enough, and these performances are powerful enough to be seen in a real theater. That’s where good films belong.