'Crazy Heart': Going Down Slow, By Kurt Loder

Why Jeff Bridges is suddenly on everybody's Oscar list.

Bad Blake is a man with a lot of mileage on him, every inch of it visible. Once a big country-music star, he now drives himself around the Southwest playing one-night gigs at local bars, some of them located in bowling alleys. He lives on cheap whiskey and bad food, which he generally eats while smoking. He's too numb to be bitter, although he has worked up some resentment about Tommy Sweet, a onetime member of Bad's old backing band who's since eclipsed him and become a big country star himself. Then one day a sympathetic young reporter named Jean Craddock turns up seeking an interview — a "where are they now" sort of thing — and Bad thinks he may see a light at the end of his long dark tunnel.

[movie id="433350"]"Crazy Heart,"[/movie] adapted from a 1989 novel by Thomas Cobb, has the shape of a tale that's possibly been too-often told — the fallen star, the quest for redemption. But the details here are fresh, and first-time director Scott Cooper, who also wrote the script, has a lithe storytelling sensibility, cutting away from familiar narrative elements before they can settle into cliché.

The movie's most mesmerizing feature, though, is [movieperson id="2847"]Jeff Bridges[/movieperson]. As the heavily dented Bad Blake, Bridges carries every scene in the picture with a performance that seems to materialize out of pure feeling. He never strains for emotional effects, and he has no vanity. (Bad's undraped paunch gets plenty of screen time.) He's also a master of the underplayed line reading. (Asked where his hard-knock songs come from, Bad almost whispers, "Life, unfortunately.") Bridges has been such a fine actor for so long that the big surprise here is that he can still surprise us.

So can [movieperson id="20078"]Colin Farrell[/movieperson], possibly the last person you'd expect to be cast in the role of Tommy Sweet, the hot young country star. Tommy still idolizes Bad, generously crediting the older man with teaching him everything he knows, and Farrell brings that feeling of respectful deference to his performance. (His name is buried in the cast list.) Tommy represents a new generation of "outlaw country" musicians — he has a ponytail and earrings and not a lot of use for cowboy regalia — and Farrell plays him straight: no down-home twang or yee-ha verbal flourishes (or Irish-accent slippage, either). Carefully muting his star power, he's wonderfully likable in the role.

As is [movieperson id="25962"]Maggie Gyllenhaal[/movieperson], who plays Jean, the much-married Bad's latest lifeline. We immediately understand what Bad sees in this younger woman — with a divorce behind her and a four-year-old son to tend to, she has a sweet, scuffed-angel glow. It's a little more difficult to accept her instant willingness to take this pickled washout into her life, though. She's the linchpin for Bad's moral resurrection (and for the story's unexpected conclusion), but her presence sometimes suggests plot mechanics more than organic necessity. Considering this is a movie that nearly escaped us and went straight to video, though, that's a minor quibble.

"Crazy Heart" also has one of the year's most vibrant soundtracks, a mix of country oldies (among them a classic by the late Waylon Jennings, whom Bad Blake much resembles), and burnished, rootsy originals by T-Bone Burnett, co-writing with country vet Stephen Bruton (who died after the movie wrapped) and the young Texas singer-songwriter Ryan Bingham (who contributes a ravishing version of the movie's theme song, "The Weary Kind"). Bridges does all his own singing (so does Farrell), and there's a husky conviction to his vocals that's entirely persuasive — we can see how this man might once have been a star, hanging out with Waylon and Willie in some bar far from Nashville.

Along with its other virtues, "Crazy Heart" movingly communicates the mournful truths and clear-eyed acceptance that are at the heart of country music. At one point, Jean tells Bad how deeply she loves her son: "I couldn't live if I lost Buddy," she says. Bad knows better, though. "That's the damnedest part," he says. "You do."

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