Fox Searchlight’s sudden decision to toss Crazy Heart into the heat of December and therefore the Oscar competition casts a brighter spotlight — and greater scrutiny — on what is a modest, rather conventional depiction of an aging and alcoholic country musician on a lengthy downward spiral. Had this film appeared later at Sundance, you would have the pleasure of discovering a fine performance by Jeff Bridges in an otherwise unremarkable movie. But with his best actor candidacy already announced, you start to notice his uncanny resemblance to Kris Kristofferson and speculate about how much this performance derives from Rip Torn’s still-memorable turn as a ruthlessly self-absorbed country singer in the 1973 film Payday.
Make no mistake: Bridges more than delivers the goods for Oscar eligibility. He is the mesmerizing, dangerous, unpredictable heart of Crazy Heart. He is a damn good reason to see the film, and Maggie Gyllenhaal and the ever-mysterious, shockingly beautiful New Mexico desert are a couple of others.
But even with a more upbeat ending given to this adaptation of Thomas Cobb’s downbeat novel, some 22 years out of print, Crazy Heart might struggle for an audience. Whether a drunk recovers or not, you still have to pass time with a guy you know will screw up just about every opportunity coming his way.
Bridges’ Bad Blake earns his name. He can’t always get through a set without having to go backstage to vomit. Even so, you figure cigarettes might kill him before the booze does. Either way, it’ll be a tight race.
Once a genuine star, he now plays with teenage pickup bands and performs at bowling alleys. Women slip him phone numbers, though, so he has something other than a bottle to get him through the night.
He meets a cute, very young journalist (Gyllenhaal), to whom he grants an interview. So the interview gives you his backstory — four marriages and a son he hasn’t spoken to in years — while these two fall into a high-risk relationship. It’s especially high risk for the reporter, who has a 4-year-old son.
The question in movies about abusers is where exactly will rock bottom be and when will he hit it? One pretty much knows it will have something to do with that young boy, especially when Gyllenhaal says she couldn’t live without him.
Bridges gives Bad Blake a rough charm that sees him through hard situations and attracts the occasional friend like Robert Duvall’s compassionate tavern owner. As he rumbles to one-night stands throughout the Southwest in a battered car, he has his mood swings, but one senses what really keeps him going is the music. It matters to him. He connects his life to his music and lives his songs onstage and off. Bridges is not a bad singer, either, thoroughly convincing one that he once could have been a headliner.
There is a smart subplot involving a younger country star, well played by Colin Farrell. Once his protege, Bad Blake now feels the sting of his success. But when they meet, the singer clearly does not emulate any of Bad Blake’s self-destructive ways. The star tries very hard to help his old friend and begs him to write songs for which he will pay grandly.
Actor Scott Cooper makes his debut as a writer-director, but he’s working with tired material. As it is, Bridges and the cast perform wonders to make Crazy Heart seem as fresh as it does. But an ex-star out of control and the self-destructive drunk is a cross between types with too many antecedents in other movies.
Crazy Heart is the second salvage job by Fox Searchlight in as many years. The film was made for about $7 million by Country Music Television, a unit of Viacom. When Paramount was about to throw it into the scrap heap of a video release, the film was purchased by Fox Searchlight. Unlike that unit’s rescue of last year’s Slumdog Millionaire from Warner Bros., Crazy Heart lacks that spark of originality. So what Fox Searchlight has salvaged essentially is a highly watchable performance by Bridges, one of many he has furnished throughout a long career.
Opens: Wednesday, Dec. 16 (Fox Searchlight)