“Crazy Heart”

Max Reviews: “Crazy Heart” – 4 stars out of four.

I’ve found it relatively impossible to separate how good “Crazy Heart” is with how good Jeff Bridges is, try as I may. Speculation about whether the movie would be as fine without him seem pointless, as it never will be. Without him, that is. While plays are re-interpreted constantly, with new casts, new directors, new ideas, a film character and the actor who portrays him are inseperable. No matter what the character was on the page, for better or for worse, history will simply remember how they are portrayed. Therefore, to say Jeff Bridges plays Bad Blake seems to be an understatement. Let us proceed with the notion that Jeff Bridges is Bad Blake, or, to put it another way, Bad Blake is Jeff Bridges, and always will be. Comforting, isn’t it?

Which is not to say that one is hyper-aware of this fact while watching the movie. Quite the opposite, in fact. Jeff Bridges is not what I would call a chameleon, and yet he inhabits his roles so fully as to hide in plain sight. I’d call him a vessel. All trace thoughts of Bridges bleed away as soon as we hear him sing; from then on we see Bad Blake, no doubt about it. I don’t know how he does it, but he brings a lifetime of experience to these songs. He seems to know them inside out, like the Frank Sinatra* who sings “My Way” at the end of his career. “I used to be somebody, but now I’m somebody else”, he sings. Bridges makes every word, and the several meanings, resonate strongly.

I would be remiss if I were not to mention the music in the film. Writer-director Scott Cooper wrangled an impressive stable of musicians to contribute to the film, both the music that plays throughout the film and the songs which Blake himself sings. The movie’s theme song of sorts, “The Weary Kind”, has a build-up in the movie that would seem to be crippling. From early on in the movie, when his manager and his protege haggle him to write new music, it is obvious that Bad will end up writing a song, one that will summarize the experience and, possibly, contain the film’s title within its lyrics. That I still had a lump in my throat when it eventually played, and every subsequent time I hear it, tells you all you need to know about how good it is.

The movie follows Blake, an aging, alcoholic and thoroughly over-the-hill country music singer who was once a headliner, but is now relegated to touring small bars and the occasional bowling alley. An early scene shows him dismissing a member of his back-up band who asks him to jam before the show. “Just listen to the CD”, Blake responds, and returns to his motel room. Later that night, during the performance, he leaves the stage to throw up in a garbage can out back. We believe that he is merely going through the motions. And yet, look at him later on down the road: Arriving at another venue, he is delighted to find that the piano player he will be playing with has real talent. That night, while dazzling the crowd, we see the twinkle in his eye. He’s still got it.

I’m not the first to point out the similarities between this story and “The Wrestler”, which starred Mickey Rourke in a performance that, like Bridges’, could have only been played by him. Both films seem to have caught lightening in a bottle. But the existence of both films does not compromise the other. They, after all, had nothing to do with one another, and there are countless stories and movies like them. And they both prove that with great writing, acting and filmmaking, even the oldest story can be made fresh. Just as the oldest song can be by the finest of musicians.

Many actresses might fall to the wayside when matched with such a formidable actor, but Bridges is matched every step of the way by the severely underused Maggie Gyllenhaal, as the woman Blake finds at the end of the road. She believes their relationship is doomed to fail. There is a scene in the film where Bad is writing a song on her bed, and she begins to cry. He asks her what’s wrong. Here is a moment that in the hands of a lesser actress might have seemed pathetic or cloying. Not with Gyllenhaal. She grounds every moment. This relationship is as tender as any you’d have found on the screens in 2009.

But life somehow always seems to get in the way. Crazy Heart does not end happily, nor does it end particularly sadly. In fact, in my head, it hasn’t ended at all. In my mind, Bad Blake is still out there, touring the road. And even after Bridges is gone, he will still live on there.

Comforting, isn’t it?

*The included Bono piece reads laughably. But choose the option that allows Bono to read it, and it achieves a  transformative, magnificent silliness.

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