Is there an American cultural institution as peculiar to outsiders as country music? Perhaps professional wrestling. In that sense it is a shame that Crazy Heart, a dramatic star vehicle that features a down and out musician struggling with middle age and mortality, trails a year after The Wrestler, a dramatic star vehicle about a down and out wrestler struggling with middle age and mortality.
Mickey Rourke was nominated for an Oscar for his turn as Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson, and Jeff Bridges’ performance as Bad Blake seems the confident choice for this year’s Best Actor winner. Rightly so, as Bridges commands the film, creating a character that is fully formed and believable. Unfortunately, the film lacks the power to support such a career highlight performance.
Blake opens the film playing a gig at a bowling alley (Big Lebowski fans, feel free to commence your laughter); he’s in the musical gutter, pissing in bottles as he drives himself between venues. Unwilling to write new material and bitter about the success of his former back-up guy Tommy Sweet (an awkward Colin Farrell), Blake’s tired career is slumped somewhere in between irrelevance and stagnation, with even sex with ageing groupies starting to get a little stale. That is until bonny single mum and journalist Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal) comes into the equation.
Of course, she comes with a kid, and, despite the complicating factors of age difference and alcoholism, both characters welcome Blake with open arms, allowing the musician to, in startlingly unsubtle fashion, come to terms with his previous failed relationships and missed opportunities at fatherhood. With this development, Crazy Heart takes a sharp turn towards the anodyne, with Blake’s problems and revelations coming off in retrospect as too cheap, too easily surmountable. Brief montages, and jumps forward in the narrative’s chronology pass over character progression in favour of tidy, at times patronising, storytelling.
It is foolish to attempt to second-guess Crazy Heart, as its narrative developments wouldn’t satisfy drinking games for either ‘depressing’ or ‘saccharine’ drama cliches. Instead, first time writer-director Scott Cooper imbues the film with a gentle, homespun atmosphere that plays to country music’s own stigmatised (mostly erroneously) traits – self-obsessed lyrics that dare not truly slice with insight, that are wrapped in a warm, inoffensive and slightly nostalgic accompaniment.
The film glides by with an unassuming pace, with flashes of tenderness, humour and heartbreak. All the while, the camera observes with a constantly autumnal gaze, and dotes on both the natural and urban sides of the American landscape, culminating with a particularly beautiful final crane shot.
To be blunt, though, Jeff Bridges is the only reason to even consider watching Crazy Heart (although a brilliant cameo from Robert Duvall is a hilarious treat). While the character’s development in the script is surprisingly thin (the film says little about Blake or his music, and even a contrived interview scene calls up little back-story), Bridges is outstanding, giving Blake a creaky decrepitude that is offset by a still-burning fire in the gut.
Even though the film itself doesn’t focus on such a trait, Bridges subtly underlines the oddness of the character and the life he leads, eating takeaway steak and bagging free booze in exchange for a song dedication. There are hints that, in other hands, Blake would have been a dull husk, but the way that Bridges embodies both a frazzled eccentricity and a robust masculinity gives the character a much more intriguing dimension, creating in the process a bedraggled misfit who looks like a Bizarro World Kris Kristofferson.
Indeed, what distinguishes the role against others across the actor’s stellar career are the central gig scenes, where Blake comes into his own and Bridges exhibits a real flair and charisma. It is certainly one of the better musical performances by an erstwhile actor, with Bridges shining with magnetism and singing with an authentic mix of capability and personality. The songs, written by Stephen Bruton, Ryan Bingham and T-Bone Burnett, are solid slices of suitably dusty Americana, but at times only seem to work in context. Key tune The Weary Kind, a gentle anthem that acts as a precis for the film, is certainly a keeper, but it is Bridges’ earthy, damaged, resilient croon that really sells the musical side of Crazy Heart.
While there’s an argument to make as to whether this is Bridges’ best performance, it is certainly his most Oscar-worthy. Such black-hole dramas are pure awards fodder; however, it will be an unfortunate addition to the Academy Awards canon, as Crazy Heart is a dramatic flatline.
Crazy Heart is playing now in London, and gets a wide UK release on March 5th.