Crazy Heart has been compared to The Wrestler in terms of plot and characters, but the tone is completely different. The Wrestler was a heavy, mostly very serious movie. Crazy Heart, though also about a washed-up performer trying to redeem himself, treats everything lightly, even superficially. In fact, it's that lightness that keeps it from being a great movie, as even the biggest problems the protagonist faces are resolved cheerily. The movie's almost too pleasant for its own good.
But it certainly is pleasant! This sunshine is mostly thanks to Jeff Bridges, the 60-year-old actor who has radiated joviality throughout his career. Even when that friendliness is tinged with crankiness, he still usually seems like someone you'd want to hang out with. That's the major strength of Crazy Heart, in which he plays Bad Blake, a grizzled old country singer whose glory days are behind him. (The first song we hear from him begins: "I used to be somebody/Now I'm somebody else.") He drives his 30-year-old pickup truck around the Southwest, performing in honky-tonk dive bars and greasy bowling alleys in places like Pueblo and Santa Fe. His manager (Paul Herman) books the gigs and arranges for backup bands in each city; Bad just has to show up with his guitar, get suitably drunk, and take the stage.
In Santa Fe, he meets Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a twentysomething newspaper reporter who interviews him and becomes his local sweetheart. She's one of those gals who've had nothing but trouble with men, and is now fully devoted to her 4-year-old son, Buddy (Jack Nation), trying not to repeat the mistakes of her past. (Tip: To avoid repeating the mistakes of your past, do not sleep with a 57-year-old alcoholic country singer who's only passing through town.) I cannot imagine what Jean and Bad see in each other, but their fondness feels authentic. When he's not on the road, Bad lives in Houston and plays regularly at a bar owned by his old pal Wayne (Robert Duvall). Houston and Santa Fe are not adjacent. Can anything real come of this May-December, Texas-New Mexico relationship?
Based on a novel by Thomas Cobb and written and directed by first-timer Scott Cooper, Crazy Heart keeps telling us that Bad Blake's life is miserable. But that's at odds with what Cooper is showing us. Bad loves the road, he's genuinely good onstage, the people who come to the shows know who he is and have his old records, and there's at least one groupie in each town eager to sleep with him. Yes, he's an alcoholic, and yes, his life is ungrounded. But every time the film hints at deep complications -- an illness, an accident, a setback -- it's only a matter of moments before it's resolved, or at least moved to the background. We never get a strong sense that Bad needs "redemption" so much as he just needs a shave and a shower.
He's envious that a young musician he trained, Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), has eclipsed him in popularity. But Tommy is respectful and grateful, and does what he can to help his mentor. Bad used to write a lot of great songs but hasn't done so in a while ... and then he starts writing again, just like that. Bad's drinking makes him wake up sick one day; the next day he's fine. He was never a millionaire, and he doesn't make much money now. But he gets by, and he still has opportunities, and he loves what he does. A lot of people are a lot worse off.
Besides, he's so darned gregarious! There are some oversimplified characterizations elsewhere (Bad's agent is like a Mel Brooks parody of Hollywood agents), but Bad himself is layered and honest, a low-rent Johnny Cash who comes across as a real person: moody and flawed, but always sincere and likable. As usual, Bridges makes it look easy, ramblin' along through this ramblin' story as if it takes no effort at all to create a three-dimensional character out of nothing. A more substantive examination of Bad Blake's life would have made for a more powerful movie, but even this shallower treatment is a nice way to spend a couple hours.
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Eric D. Snider (website) would hang out with Bad Blake any day, though he'd prefer it if Bad bathed first.