Monday, January 18, 2010

Crazy Heart

By Elise Nakhnikian

Accepting the Best Actor Golden Globe last weekend, Jeff Bridges thanked his dad for having convinced him to go into the family business. “He said, come on, it’s fun!” he recalled.

A lot of actors wouldn’t have found much fun in playing a soul as tattered as Bad Blake, the train wreck of a country singer Bridges plays in Crazy Heart. Fifty-seven going on seventy, he scratches out a living playing seedy little joints. When he’s not onstage or on the road, chances are he’s in one of a series of even seedier motel rooms, drinking until he passes out. If he has any company, it’s an equally drunken fan who’s probably got as many miles on her as he does. In other words, to quote Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal), the woman who shows up to interview him and falls in love, Blake is “dying a slow death.”

But Bridges locates the joy in the good ol’ boy too. Peering up from under heavy eyelids to take Jean’s measure or beguiling her little boy like a ragged Pied Piper, his Blake is a trenchant observer who hasn’t had much to look at for a long time.

Pauline Kael said Bridges might be “the most natural and least self-conscious screen actor that has ever lived.” In Crazy Heart, he’s found a script as truthful and authentic as his acting. This intelligent, quietly nuanced, often heartbreaking performance reminds me of the work Bridges did in American Heart, another brutally honest story about a deadbeat dad whose drinking has him just about beat.

Gyllenhaal, who did her own brilliantly wrenching turn as an addict hitting rock bottom in the excellent Sherrybaby, plays a stable single mother who falls for Blake in spite of herself, offering him an unexpected last chance at love. Their wary delight in each other and his interactions with her son feel as real as dirt, making you root for their relationship even when you know you shouldn’t.

Blake has at least one other thing going for him, besides his abundant talent: his best friend back home in Houston is played by Robert Duvall. Duvall gives Wayne just the right heft and heart as the kind of guy who picks his friend up from the bathroom door and takes him fishing. He also brings with him the ghost of Mac Sledge, the drunken country singer he played in Tender Mercies, and the memory of that movie’s artfully sanded edges made me appreciate Crazy Heart’s raw emotions and tough-minded realism all the more.

Blake pays a higher price for his irresponsibility than Sledge did, but his story has notes of hope, a cautiously upbeat ending, and those moments of joy that Bridges picks up on with such gusto. This is not one of those voyeuristic parades of pain, like The Wrestler, whose whole purpose seems to be to wallow in its main character’s humiliation and self-destruction.

Bridges gives a vanity-free performance, letting himself go flabby in the middle and often leaving his mouth a little agape, as if he can’t be bothered to close it. He still looks a lot like Kris Kristofferson, but he acts more like Townes Van Zandt, a brilliant but self-destructive singer-songwriter with a fatal attraction to booze (one of Townes' hauntingly sad songs is on the excellent soundtrack.)

Bridges has said he would not have done this movie if his friend T Bone Burnett weren’t writing Bad Blake’s songs, and he’s right about how crucial Burnett’s contribution is. Blake’s songs are beautiful and sad, a little bit Leonard Cohen and a little bit Robert Earl Keene, and lyrics like “I used to be somebody/Now I am somebody else” and “Funny how falling feels like flying for a little while” fit him like an old pair of boots. Bridges does all his own singing, as he did in The Fabulous Baker Boys, in a soulful voice that’s both rueful and defiant.

There’s some nice, authentically Texan-sounding dialogue, laced through with the black humor of a smart country boy, in Scott Cooper’s script, which is based on a novel by Thomas Cobb. And the contrast between Blake’s way-below-the-radar “tour” and the great glossy production that is the traveling show of Tommy Sweet, his former backup musician made good, shows us just how far Blake has fallen from the commercial heart of country music.

Colin Farrell, who seems to be settling comfortably into supporting roles after failing to become the new Gen X star he was set up to be, is very good as Tommy, even rocking a believable Southern accent and singing a credible duet with Bridges. It’s an uncharacteristically restrained role for the notorious bad boy, but he plays it with subtle sensitivity, making Tommy as life-sized and real as everything else in this perfectly scaled production.

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