In “Crazy Heart,” Jeff Bridges takes the part of Bad Blake, and he takes it with both fists.
Bad is a washed-up country music legend reduced to playing bowling alleys and tiny bars, singing sad songs that were hits a long time ago. Often playing top-notch music and just as often on the edge of self-destruction, the character fits Bridges like a pair of custom Tony Lamas boots. Bridges could pass for Kris Kristofferson’s dissolute brother, and he sings in a pleasant Gene Autry tenor.
“Crazy Heart” is a portrait of an artist with talent and soul aplenty but the discipline of a pile of marbles on a glass-topped table. He lives life by his own rules, which frequently means no rules at all. You can see why Bridges signed on for this low-key, low-budget character study. It isn’t every day an actor gets the chance to pitch face-forward into the camera, dead drunk.
Like a good country song, the film hooks us early, keeps it simple, and tells a story straight from the heart. Bad isn’t as cussed as he claims, but he’s no bargain. He has a truck-drivin’ man’s work ethic, hauling himself around the Southwest in a battered ’78 Suburban for ever-shrinking paychecks. He remembers all his lyrics, though bourbon helps him forget the days when he was a much bigger act and the money arrived faster than he could squander it. He gets through his sets, even though he may have to excuse himself mid-verse to Bruce into a trash can. And the honky-tonk mamas he snags are getting to be nanas. The film makes no attempt to explain Bad’s songs — they just sort of occur to him — but it sketches the conditions in which they begin to swarm and spawn.
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On a two-night gig in Austin, Bad consents to an interview with a music writer named Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal, in top form). She’s the most beautiful woman he’s had in his sights in a while; inside those scrunched features and gangling limbs is something interior and lovely.
“I want to talk to you about how bad you make this room look,” he says, and Bridges makes you believe it’s a spontaneous burst of poetry, not a standard line of bull. More than that, he discovers he likes talking to her. A few topics are off-limits, like his onetime sideman, current superstar Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell, also at the top of his game). But they share a love of music and a common experience of hard times. Jean, a single mom who’s seen her share of losers, takes a tentative shine to Bad, who cleans up his act and spends some time with her, baking biscuits for her little boy. This unmade bed of a man begins to pull himself together.
Bridges and Farrell do shrewd, precise work together; Tommy offers his old mentor a hand back to the big leagues and Bad can’t decide if he’s outraged, grateful or embarrassed by his own eagerness. This is why famous actors agree to a pay cut to take a role.
As sure as verse follows chorus, trouble arrives, and you may see the well-worn plot twists coming a mile off. Still, “Crazy Heart” gets us worried about what will happen to Bad and Jean, who matter to each other even though the world is no longer interested in them. It would make a heck of a song.