' Cinema Romantico: Crazy Heart

Monday, January 04, 2010

Crazy Heart

Bad Blake is a boozed up, broken down once great country & western singer now relegated to playing a bowling alley in nowhere, New Mexico where they won't so much as comp his cocktails. His manager wants him to write some new songs but Bad hasn't written new material in years. He finds himself at a liquor store, on the prowl for the cheapest fix, except the store's owner recognizes him, gives him a bottle for free, and wonders if Bad might play a song that evening specifically for he and his wife. At the show it becomes clear Bad is well past the point of drunk and I thought, Oh God, he's going to forget the dedication. Or get the names wrong. Or throw up onstage.

Except he does not forget the dedication. And then he leaves the stage to throw up where no one can see him. It is the most miniscule of twists on what you're expecting, yet miniscule can make all the difference, and it does, again and again, in writer/director/producer Scott Cooper's "Crazy Heart".

After some opening images of the wide open southwestern sky we see Bad pull into that bowling alley parking lot in his beat up car, climb out, buckle up his pants, and then pour a container of his own urine onto the gravel. It is a throwaway, I suppose, but it is rather telling. This is a small, modest film with an entirely predictable storyline (while also re-inforcing the movie myth that sobriety can be achieved in a montage) but it also gets all intimate details right and is filled with terrific performances, one of which - that would be Jeff Bridges in the lead - certainly seems destined to win the Oscar. (Ryan Bingham, the real life country rock troubadour who appears in a small role, should be just as destined to win the Oscar for Best Original Song but I'm not necessarily counting on the Academy to figure that one out.)

Bad agrees to an interview with a local reporter, Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal). She once had a husband who is long since gone and now raises a young boy on her own. She is drawn to Bad, perhaps because it is this sort of can't-do-right-no-matter-how-hard-he-tries-not-that-he-really-ever-tries-that-hard man to whom she is always drawn. Bad is drawn to her, perhaps because she represents one last chance at some sort of salvation. Once upon a time Bad played with a young up-and-comer named Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell) but Tommy went on to bigger and better things. "Is he real country?" Jean asks Bad of Tommy. Bad says he is but we don't necessarily believe him. Yet Tommy remains true to his mentor, inviting him to open a show at a large venue, trying to nudge him back into songwriting. Two people who want to help Bad if only he will let them.

Farrell's role is tiny but he is fantastic. His body language during the initial onscreen meeting between the two men - looking up, down, around, everywhere but there - expresses several emotions at once. This character could have been something else, something we have seen too many times before, but Farrell rises to the challenge and makes it fresh. So too does Gyllenhaal. I'll be honest. I was ready to not like Jean. Not because of Jean herself, per se, or because of Gyllenhaal, but because this character is the oldest trick in the writing arsenal. The Writer As Audience Surrogate. The audience has questions about Bad's backstory so the reporter poses them for us. It's a cheat. Always has been, always will be. But...damn, I don't know. She got to me. Something in the way she moves, I guess. I believed in this tentative relationship more than I would have ever thought possible.

It could be just because I'm a Springsteen nut that a particular story crossed my mind. (Could be? It is.) Gary U.S. Bonds was a successful R&B singer in the 60's whose song "Quarter To Three" Bruce used to cover often in concerts only to hit some serious hard times and fall off the grid. But one fateful night in the early 80's Bruce and his best friend/bandmate Stevie Van Zandt happened upon the broken down Gary Bonds playing piano at some crummy bar. They introduced themselves, wedged their way into Bonds' life, wrote him a few songs, got him some recording time, and produced a new album for him. Bonds isn't a huge name, not even close, but he's still going strong to this day. True story. So "Crazy Heart", despite its sense of cliche, has a basis in very real life.

There is no question Bridges is worthy of the accolades headed his way. The rough edges are present, accounted for, yet the coarse charisma he must have once had can be glimpsed. You feel for him and want to root in his favor but he never manipulates you into these feelings. He is likeable and unlikeable simultaneously - a tough trick - which means when he makes an awful decision you might just have to turn away. This is a character at whom you can look and see all the life that he has lived up until this time spent with him during the movie. There is a marvelous moment when a friend of Bad's played by Robert Duvall (a producer on the film) sings a bit of a great Billy Joe Shaver song and, well, I just would not feel right in concluding my review in any other fashion. As I walked home in the falling snow I thought of these lines from Uncle Tupelo and how "Crazy Heart" is a two hour journey in which Bad Blake finally comes to understand their meaning:

"There was a time
you could put it out of your mind
leave it all behind
there was a time
that time is gone."

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