Crazy Heart

Director    Scott Cooper
Starring    Jeff Bridges, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Colin Farrell, Beth Grant, Tom Bower, James Keane, Jack Nation, Debrianna Mansini
Release    16 DEC (US) 5 MAR (UK)    Certificate 15
3 stars


9th March 2010

"I used to be somebody, now I am somebody else" sings Bad Blake, Jeff Bridges' veteran country singer, through liquor-hardened vocals. He used to be a highly regarded country star, but his crumbling career has turned him into a hard luck story more akin to blues music than country: he's tired, broke, an alcoholic and down on his luck. Blake's star has dimmed to a status that his agent can only use to illuminate such small-time venues as bowling alleys, where he reluctantly plays to a handful of loyal fans.

Meanwhile, his former protégé Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell) has risen to fame, packing out arenas - much to the dismay of Blake. Of course, Blake really should be aiming that frustration at The Wrestler, because Mickey Rourke and Darren Aronofksy entirely stole the thunder of Crazy Heart; this film is essentially about a former star struggling to come to terms with the downbeat reality of life after the limelight.

It's a different career but near identical theme to The Wrestler - and with its low-key mood, bruised protagonist and evocative style it's uncannily similar in style to Aronofsky's film too. The long list of similarities between the two films detracts from the impact of this character study. Still, with an actor as charismatic and watchable as Jeff Bridges filling the boots of the lead musician, the film is never less than absorbing.

[gallery]This is a role that appears tailor made for Bridges; that lazy charm immortalized in The Big Lebowski is easily applicable to his fading country star in Crazy Heart. He looks every bit the part of a country musician, and when you see the magnetism he exudes when he takes to the stage, combined with his authentic vocal performance of T-Bone Burnett's toe-tapping songs (impressively written especially for the film), you wonder if Bridges had formerly carved out a sideline career on the margins of country for real.

Yet, as good as Bridges is, this isn't a massive departure from what he has done before. In essence, Bad Blake is The Dude twenty years into the future, when the novelty of being a nomadic drifter has begun to wear off. Sure, there is plenty of raw angst and quiet introspection about Bridges performance but giving Bridges the Oscar for Crazy Heart is another example of the Best Actor gong being given as a lifetime achievement award.

Equally as impressive as Bridges is Maggie Gyllenhaal, playing a music journalist who gives the central character a glimmer of hope and the prospect of a way out of his listless, isolated existence when the two begin to strike an unlikely yet strangely believable connection. She's alluring, intelligent, heartfelt and entirely organic - easily, this is her best performance since Secretary. It's the chemistry between the two that really provides the considerable heart underpinning the film.

There is an emotionally exploitative moment between the pair that is jarringly out-of-synch with the naturalness of the film as the narrative takes an ill-judged lunge into melodrama. It's the film's weakest moment but does however set up an interestingly satisfying conclusion that even supplies a moving explanation for the title of the film.

Given the central character's understandable disdain for his former apprentice, you expect Colin Farrell as Tommy to swagger in as an obnoxious antagonist. One of the high notes of Crazy Heart is that Sweet is surprisingly affable and humble within Bad Blake's presence, allowing their relationship to be an intelligent sub-plot. Like Bridges, Farrell's hidden talent of a country music suited larynx is revealed - the vocal coach has done sterling work with both actors. It's a sub-plot which reveals something rather telling about where inspiration for good music really comes from; the hard knock life may not be preferable but pain and good music go hand in hand.

It's a solid enough film marred with little blips of phoniness, one being the least convincing rehab scene you will ever see on a screen, which seems to imply that loosening the grasp of liqueur is literally a walk in a park; it's a scene that belongs in a glossy advert rather than a discerning character driven film.

Débutante director Scott Cooper has an intimate style entirely suitable to the style of performances. His handling of the all important musical interludes is well done but his pacing is a little on the languid side; as the story is, to say the least, sparse, it can become rather slow, certainly for those unacquainted with the moderate pacing defining most art-house films.

Crazy Heart is a film that is moderately successful at achieving its aim of plucking the heart strings. It's a simple, now familiar story elevated by the considerable screen presence of Bridges and a strong supporting cast. The languorous pacing is sometimes a problem but come the finale, Bad Blake may have won a few more fans.

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