Sunday, January 24, 2010

Jeff Bridges and "Crazy Heart"

Jeff Bridges has an easy, likeable presence on the big screen. The world first took notice of him in 1971's "The Last Picture Show".  As Duane, Bridges' youthful swagger and bravado that masked an awkward vulnerability earned him his first Oscar nomination.  In 1974 he upstaged Clint Eastwood in Michael Cimino's action-buddy flick "Thunderboldt and Lightfoot", lighting the screen with his exuberant, even homoerotic turn, and scored a surprise second Oscar nod.  Since then he has established himself as a dependable, technically proficient screen actor in films like "The Fisher King," "The Fabulous Baker Boys," "Starman," and the cult-favorite "The Big Lebowski".  He is as popular to today's generations of filmgoers as was his father Lloyd Bridges to his, and I would say he has far surpassed the career achievements of his brother, Beau.

The showers of accolades and awards Bridges is now receiving for his role in "Crazy Heart" are a sentimental appreciation of his career. Otherwise, his somewhat routine performance here would not be so lavishly recognized. In "Crazy Heart", Bridges plays Bad Blake, a down-and-out, alcoholic, has-been country-western singer, slumming and sweating his way through pathetic gigs in Southwestern dives and bowling alleys.  Bridges is a good sport and does what any good actor could with this unappealing characacter, and the result usually goes no deeper than his Kris-Kristofferson drawl. 

To Bridges' great credit, his likeability shines through, still, although he has never looked worse, or been in worse shape, and while this is right for the character, it's hard to watch Bridges the actor in this condition. Worse, first-time director Scott Cooper shoots the paunchy, sadly unhealthy-looking actor  in various stages of undress in what seems, since DeNiro in "Raging Bull", to pass for fearless screen acting. 

I have seen Cooper in interviews and read others, and I admire the attempt to shoot a character-driven film with poetic stretches and less reliance on plot, in a throwback to the films of the 1970's he (and I) loved.  Unfortunately, neither he nor Bridges are helped by Cooper's meandering script. I have not read the 1987 novel (now out of print) by Thomas Cobb on which this is based, but the screenplay bounces like a pinball from one false start to the next: Bad's serious, alcohol-related health problems; Bad's attempt to reach a long-estranged son and ex-wife; Bad's redemptive relationship with a local journalist and mother of a 4-year-old son; Bad's relationship with a young singer who he once mentored and who is now a rising star; Bad's attemtpts to write "big songs" once again.....  And before you can say "Tender Mercies", there's Robert Duvall ( a co-producer here) as a crusty but caring father-figure.

This film constantly reminded me of the superior "Tender Mercies", and Duvall's appearance here was a mistake; to those who remember that earlier film, it may throw you completely out of this picture.

Each one of the aforementioned plot points could have been developed into a compelling and interesting character study, but except for the central love story, none ever gets out of the gate before reaching a hasty resolution.  (For example, it is never made clear why Bad refuses to open for the young star Tommy Sweet; it is a bit of suspense that dissipates, totally wasted.)  "Crazy Heart" is a rambling, shambling film about a rambling, shambling character, who might have been served better with a more focused treatment.

I enjoy country music and had difficulty believing that Bad was ever a big star. I expected better use of the music here; we never hear the big song "The Weary Kind" performed in its entirety during the film.  As Tommy Sweet, Colin Farrell is a nice surprise, giving the movie its spark and something nice to rest the eyes.  Also in wonderful support is Maggie Gyllenhaal as Jean, who is sent to write a story about Bad and winds up loving him. Gyllenhall finds the right blend of dreamy romanticism and fierce motherly practicality, and sort of makes us believe that she sees something in this sloppy, drunken has-been.

I kept rooting for the film's success.  As long as our attention is focused on Bridges' face, "Crazy Heart" achieves some of the poetry it longs for.  Bridges does a great job expressing his closed-eyed gratitude for a kiss, or the helpless resignation of a man needing to get sober, or the panic of once again "losing" a four-year-old boy.  I did wish for more poetry in the lighting and visuals, but  gave up any hope of finding visual beauty after being subjected a second time to a shot of Bridges' intoxicated puking.

Here's a small film that is likely to grow on some, turn off others, and win the instant admiration of still others. It's not the movie I expected, and I wished for a lot more, and some day I may be willing to give it another look.  I congratulate Bridges on his long career, and I hope Scott Copper settles down and finds the cinematic poetry he is inspired to create, and of which I believe he is capable.  But if you still believe Oscar rewards the highest individual achievement in acting, I think the statue ought to grace another mantlepiece this year.   "Crazy Heart"  is an earnest  and honest attempt to entertain and observe the redemption of a lowly individual.  It is a modest success, and I fear it is being lauded out of proportion; and mixed as my reaction is, I hope it finds an audience that isn't turned off by the hype.



  1. Great insight as always. I think he will win the Oscar not only for his performance but for a four decade plus career of excellent performances. The Academy loves to reward down and out performances and this seems to be "The Wrestler turned country music singer" That being said, its a shame the awards can't be spread out. The SAG Awards last night were almost a carbon copy of the Globes.

  2. Cathy, thanks for your comment. I am inclined to agree with you. But it is a good field of Actors this year, and perhaps there will be a surprise!

  3. Another great review Tom! Kudos on spotlighting such a talented and versatile actor as Jeff Bridges. I've been a big fan of his forever and loved his performance in Lebowski in particular. It's sad to hear that this film didn't quite measure up to expectations, but not every film can be an award winner! Well done!