Directed by Scott Cooper
“Crazy Heart” is like, surprise surprise, the lyrics of a country music song, the kind that tells us here’s an old, broken-down singer, reduced to playing bowling alleys for pocket change, who then meets a woman he should have met thirty years before, and – well, let’s leave it there. I’ve already given away half the plot.
What works for me in “Crazy Heart” and let me interrupt this review by remembering that once, driving by myself through a long stretch of western desert, I found a country-music station to listen to and in ten minutes I was crying like a baby; I’m not immune to the power of country music.
What works for me, as I said, is that the story of an old, broken-down singer as it unfolds on the screen becomes so much more than the clichéd lyrics can convey. The main reason is the brilliant performance by Jeff Bridges, as Bad Blake, the man whose stardom and magnetism are all but gone by the time we meet him. Maybe not quite: he still can draw groupies even to a bowling alley, in spite of the fact that he’s an alcoholic, he smokes like a chimney, and he’s near death from emphysema.
“Crazy Heart” might even have ended there, but then Bad Blake meets the woman who just might save him. It’s Maggie Gyllenhaal, a would-be journalist in Santa Fe, with a four-year-old child of her own, who wants to interview him for the paper. They start by circling each other – “What’s your real name, Bad?” she says. He won’t tell her. “Are you married?” “Five times – well, four actually.” And somehow the actors make us believe that these two unlikely people could actually fall in love with each other. For Bad, it’s a kind of new anchor for his life, and he bonds with Gyllenhaal’s little son.
Soon he’s writing songs again, urged on by his agent and by his one-time acolyte Tommy Sweet (beautifully played by Colin Farrell), who’s now a country music headliner. In fact, in one lovely scene at a huge venue where Bad is now opening for Tommy, the musical highlight of the film is that the two sing a great duet together.
The music in “Crazy Heart,” a combination of old country standards and new songs written by T Bone Burnett and Stephen Bruton, is never the kind of embarrassing let-down you might expect from a film of this kind. The songs are beautiful, and we in the theatre are as affected by them as the folks in the bowling alley. Director Scott Cooper has a wonderful feel for the story and the places across the west that it’s set in. And Jeff Bridges is brilliant as Bad Blake; it’s no wonder he’s been nominated for an Academy Award.