Quite the reputation precedes Crazy Heart, which Fox Searchlight bumped from a spring release to the heart of awards season. However, those expectations — an Oscar for Jeff Bridges’ best performance, a forceful return to ‘70s naturalism etc. — and the picture’s reality never quite jibe. It’s a well-worn, leisurely paced sojourn through restrained territory, a movie rife with verisimilitude that so contently aspires to low-key minimalism that it leaves no more than a fleeting emotional effect.
The veteran plays Bad Blake, a grizzled, washed up alcoholic country singer reduced to playing sparsely attended bowling allies and bars. Time, it seems, has passed him by in favor of his former protégé Tommy (Colin Farrell), now the #1 star on the country scene. Bad’s in desperate need of a reinvention. He needs some reason to keep pushing on down the long, weary road toward death. He finds it in the person of journalist Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal), with whom he begins an unlikely affair.
Cut through the hype and there’s no denying Bridges has given an authentic, lived-in performance. His gray beard, paunchy belly and gravelly voice channel Kris Kristofferson, the ideal archetype for the character. He blends in convincingly, keeping Blake rolling on a quiet plane and playing up his internal torment. Like the protagonist of a country song, he’s slow to anger, expressing his sorrows with a resigned weariness. Music producers T. Bone Burnett and Stephen Bruton give the actor a range of original songs, ballads and up-tempo numbers that he performs with gusto. An aura envelops the character because Bridges seems so at home when he’s on stage with his cowboy hat on and his guitar in his hand.
Yet, writer-director Scott Cooper never lavishes the same precise attention on the central romance. Gyllenhaal fails to drive home the deep primal attraction that the screenplay says lures Jean to Bad. She seems bent on matching Bridges restrained step for restrained step, when Jean demands more impulsivity. There’s never the sense that the characters are connecting in an almost primordial way. There’s little life to their romance, which plods along so tenderly that it becomes hard to viscerally feel what draws them together.
Without that extra resonant human angle what’s left is a sort of anthropological study, a look at a music scene and a way of life that’s slowly being siphoned away by corporate America. Contrasting the dank venues and darkened motel rooms Bad calls home with the dusty Southwestern expanse that encompasses them, the movie lives in that milieu, conveying it in all its suffocating, ennobling glory. Cooper’s unhurried direction deliberately recalls the slower paced, naturalistic cinema of the early 1970s, the dawn of the New Hollywood era. The filmmaker, heretofore known exclusively for his acting work (Gods and Generals), develops a credible subdued atmosphere that markedly contrasts with the kinetic qualities of many cinematic depictions of the music business. He smartly steps back and lets his actors and characters tell the story.
That story, however, is never quite involving enough. It wheezes along, sacrificing deeply felt dramatic moments for a sort of narrative complacency that goes down easy but never draws you in. Men in cowboy hats with gravelly voices drink whisky and talk about the old days. Bad broods, Jean looks upon him lovingly, they share heartfelt moments that reinvigorate him and he sits on his steps and slowly strums a guitar. No matter the quality of Bridges’ performance or the earnestness of Cooper’s effort, the too familiar archetypes and the overarching sense of stasis linger; the movie never really feels alive.
The Upside: Jeff Bridges gives one of his most authentic performances. The original music, by T. Bone Burnett and Stephen Bruton, is predictably great.
The Downside: The movie’s too restrained, too much of a wheezy jaunt through familiar subdued territory.
On the Side: We, along with many colleagues, are calling it now: Bridges’ fifth Oscar nomination will get him the prize.