There’s a powerful symmetry at work in “Crazy Heart” that’s impossible to resist. It’s a parallel between protagonist Bad Blake, a country singer whose entire life has led him to a nadir of disintegration, and star Jeff Bridges, whose exceptional film choices have put him at the height of his powers just in time to make Mr. Blake the capstone role of his career.
It’s a mark of how fine a performance Bridges gives that it succeeds beautifully even though the besotted, bedeviled country singer has been an overly familiar popular culture staple (Rip Torn in “Payday,” Robert Duvall in “Tender Mercies,” Hank Williams and Merle Haggard in their own lives) for forever.
No Jeff Bridges performance, however, ends up looking anything like familiar. With dozens of roles -- as well as four Oscar nominations (a fifth for this one is a lock) -- behind him in a nearly 40-year career, he has a deep understanding that great acting is not self-conscious but a result of seamless transformation into someone else.
As written and directed by first-time filmmaker Scott Cooper, Bad Blake at age 57 is a broke and falling apart country music legend, the veteran of four marriages and non-stop dissipation now reduced to playing in bowling alley bars called “The Spare Room” and saying things like, “It’s good to be here, at my age it’s good to be anywhere” and “I used to be somebody, now I’m somebody else.”
Cooper, himself an actor and musician with an eye for authenticity, has given Bridges the opportunity to deliver an all-out performance, playing someone who can be disgruntled and despairing, resentful and delightful and everything in between. Even when his character does things we’ve seen before, like heaving up backstage, it’s Bridges’ gift to make it seem honest and real.
On a par with Bridges’ acting, and a sine qua non for “Crazy Heart’s” success, is the excellent music he sings. There are great country songs, including Townes Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You” and Waylon Jennings’ “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way” laced throughout the film, but the heart of Bad’s act are the appealing melodies written for the picture by superb music producer T Bone Burnett and the late guitar player/songwriter Stephen Bruton. (Burnett and Ryan Bingham wrote the closing ballad “The Weary Kind.”) Hearing Bad’s way with these enticing songs delineates his character as much as his words or his actions.
Filmmaker Cooper, who displays a relaxed directorial style, is a lifelong fan of country music. He’d initially wanted to do a film about Merle Haggard but then came across the Thomas Cobb novel his script is based on. Inevitably, some of the story has a familiar and formulaic feel, like something we’ve seen before, but at key points “Crazy Heart” displays a welcome integrity and resists choosing the easiest paths.
We meet Bad Blake at that bowling alley in Pueblo, Colo., where his reputation for carousing has preceded him. No, he cannot run a bar tab, but he is welcome to all the free bowling he can handle and though the groupies may have gotten older, they still have an eye for him. Everyone wants new songs from Bad but that’s the one thing he doesn’t have.
The situation is somewhat more promising in Santa Fe, where Bad is persuaded to meet journalist and single mother Jean Craddock (a capable Maggie Gyllenhaal) for a story. Jean may not be the world’s best interviewer, but she is a fan and a kind of wary rapport almost immediately grows between them, with Bad being especially taken by her 4-year-old son.
Both Jean and Bad are playing it cagey because neither one, especially Jean, who has made mistakes she doesn’t want to make again, are uncertain how serious they want this relationship to be. It’s a reluctance that audiences who’ve seen more than their share of redemptive movies may share, and it’s nice to know the film sympathizes with those warning lights.
“Crazy Heart” also introduces us to the other people in Bad’s life, including his hard-nosed manager (James Keane) and an old bar-owning friend (Duvall, also one of the film’s producers). Best of all, and in some ways as interesting a relationship as the film has, is the one between Bad and Tommy Sweet, one of his former backup men who is now the hugely successful king of slick, modern country.
Bad grouses a lot about Tommy being ungrateful, always wanting new songs from Bad to record. But once we meet the singer, played by Colin Farrell, of all people, in an unbilled cameo, he’s not at all the way we picture him. Farrell, who sings a great duet with Bridges, is one of the film’s surprise treats, proving, as he did in “In Bruges,” that he is more relaxed and effective in off-beat alternate leads than classic hero parts. “Crazy Heart” isn’t only one of Bridges’ most memorable roles, it’s one of Farrell’s as well.