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Review: 'Crazy Heart'

Jeff Bridges is totally believable as Bad Blake

Posted: February 5, 2010 9:53 a.m.
Updated: February 5, 2010 9:57 a.m.

Jeff Bridges is shown in a scene from, "Crazy Heart." Ebert feels he has a lock on his first Oscar.

 
Some actors are blessed. Jeff Bridges is one of them. Ever since his first starring role in "The Last Picture Show" in 1971, he has, seemingly without effort, created a series of characters who we simply believe, even the alien "Starman." He doesn't do this with mannerisms but with their exclusion; his acting is as clear as running water. Look at him playing Bad Blake in "Crazy Heart." The notion of a broke-down, boozy country singer is an archetype in pop culture. We've seen this story before. The difference is, Bad Blake makes us believe it happened to HIM.

That's acting. There's a line of dialogue in the movie that I jotted down at the time, and it's been cited by several critics. Bad Blake is being interviewed in his shabby motel room by Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a reporter for a newspaper in Santa Fe. She's taking him, gently, to places he doesn't want to go. He's been interviewed about the subject too many times. He doesn't say that. He says, "I want to talk about how bad you make this room look."

It's such a good line I can hardly believe I've never heard it before. Bad Blake perhaps knows it sounds like an old movie. It's also the kind of line written by a singer-songwriter, the masking of emotion by ironic displacement, the indirect apology for seedy circumstances. She blushes. I can't think of a better way for the movie to get to where it has to go next.

Bridges, Gyllenhaal and Scott Cooper, the first-time writer-director, find that note all through the movie. It's like a country and western cliche happening for the first time. Bridges doesn't play drunk or hung over or newly in love in the ways we're accustomed to. It's like Bad has lived so long and been through so much, he's too worn out to add any spin to the way he feels.

Bad Blake was a star once, years ago. He has lyrics that go, "I used to be somebody, but now I'm somebody else." His loyal manager (James Keane) once booked him in top venues. As "Crazy Heart" opens, Bad is pulling up to a bowling alley. "It's this year's ‘The Wrestler,'" one of my colleagues observed after the screening. Yes. Bad still has a few loyal fans, but you get the feeling they've followed him to the bottom. He has a son he's lost touch with and hasn't written a good song in a long time. In the old days he toured with a kid named Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell). Now Tommy is a big star, but contrary to the conventions of such stories, remains loyal.

Maybe, we're thinking, with the love of a good woman he can turn it around. It's not that simple in "Crazy Heart." Jean is a good woman, but can she afford to love this wreck 25 years older than she is? Certainly not if he continues to drink, and maybe not in any case. And it's not easy for Bad to stop drinking; he's descended below his bottom.

How does Bridges do this without making the character some sort of self-pitying basket case? The presence of Robert Duvall here, playing his old friend and acting as one of the producers of this movie, is a reminder of Duvall's own "Tender Mercies" (1983), another great film about a has-been country singer and a good woman (Tess Harper). It's a measure of Bridges and Duvall, and Gyllenhaal and Harper, that they create completely different characters.

One of the ways the movie might have gone wrong is if the singing and the songs hadn't sounded right. They do. Bridges has an easy, sandpapery voice that sounds as if it's been through some good songs and good whiskey, and the film's original songs are by T Bone Burnett and Stephen Bruton (who died of cancer in May 2009 at Burnett's home). Bridges conveys the difficult feelings of a singer keeping his dogged pride while performing in a bowling alley.

The movie knows more about alcoholism than many films do and has more of that wisdom onscreen, not least from the Duvall character. Gyllenhaal's character, too, is not an enabler or an alibi artist, but a woman who feels with her mind as well as her heart. Watch her as she and Bridges find the same level of mutual confidence for their characters.

Jeff Bridges is a virtual certainty to win his first Oscar, after four nominations. The movie was once set for 2010 release (and before that, I hear, for going straight to cable). The more people saw it, the more they were convinced this was a great performance. Fox Searchlight stepped in, bought the rights, and screened it extensively in December for critics' groups, who all but unanimously voted for Bridges as the year's best actor. We're good for something.

© 2010 THE EBERT CO.

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