Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Review: "Crazy Heart"

Not long ago I was watching an old Jeff Bridges movie (1972's "Fat City") and blogged that he "is quietly having one of the great film acting careers."

And this was before I saw "Crazy Heart," perhaps the finest performance of that 50-year run.

Never winning, Bridges has been nominated four times for an Oscar -- for "Thunderbolt and Lightfoot," "The Last Picture Show," "The Contender" and "Starman" -- and should have been nominated at least four other times -- "The Fisher King," "Tucker: The Man and His Dream," "Seabiscuit" and "The Fabulous Baker Boys." (Probably "Fearless," too.)

"Crazy Heart" will earn Bridges number five, and perhaps the elusive golden statuette.

He plays Bad Blake, a once-famous country singer who has reached the bottom of the barrel, and just kept burrowing downward. As we first meet him, he arrives to play a gig at a bowling alley, pouring out a jug of urine from the long drive in his battered '78 Suburban: Bad is literally pissing his life away.

He's 57, with a Dunlop belly spilling over his Texas-sized belt buckle, a scraggly beard and a face creased like aged leather. He smokes persistently, drinks whiskey prodigiously, and sings mournful songs about regret and loss to the few diehard fans who care to show up.

"I used to be somebody, but now I'm somebody else," goes one of his typical lyrics. A crowd favorite is, "It's funny how falling feels like flying ... for a little while."

Bridges embodies these songs (by Stephen Bruton and T-Bone Burnett) the way he does the role itself: With an easy, vanity-free grace that never feels like it's trying to impress for its own sake.

Bad is a man with no illusions about his has-been status, motoring from one tiny Southwestern town to another, taking any gig he can get, happily obliging any female fan who wants a roll in the sack with a once-legend -- even if the groupies are rougher-looking than they used to be.

In Santa Fe, he's surprised to find a good piano player to back him, and even more surprised by the pianist's niece, a newspaper reporter who wants an interview. Played by Maggie Gyllenhaal -- in a full-bodied turn worthy of its own nod come Oscar time -- Jean is a single mom with a 4-year-old, who's had a run of bad luck with men.

She convinces herself, against her better judgment, to green-light Bad's syrupy, well-worn come-on ("I wanna talk about how bad you make this room look") and eventually enter a relationship with a man whose notion of commitment is measured in the distance to his next town and the price of his next bottle of rattlesnake hooch.

"Crazy Heart" was directed by first-timer Scott Cooper, who also penned the screenplay from the novel by Thomas Cobb. I loved the authentic little details with which Cooper infuses his film -- like Bad, who treats his own body like a cesspool, polishing his guitar with reverence.

The supporting performances are similarly tidy, with Robert Duvall (also a producer on the film) as Bad's lone friend/bartender, and Colin Farrell as Tommy Sweet, a former protégé whose star has greatly eclipsed that of his mentor, much to both men's dismay.

But there's no mistaking who the frontman is of this ballad, so sad and so true. Jeff Bridges' masterful portrayal of a man who used to be somebody is pitch-perfect.

3.5 stars

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