In 1983, Robert Duvall starred in Tender Mercies as an alcoholic country singer whose tentative romance with a good woman and her young son turns his life around. Now, in 2009, Duvall co-produces and co-stars in Crazy Heart, the story of an alcoholic country singer whose tentative romance with a good woman and her young son turns his life around. Never mind the replication of the broad strokes; this story's been told before, and it will probably be told again, and here it is told very, very well. What is worth noting is that Tender Mercies won Duvall his first (and, inexplicably, only) Oscar, and many are predicting the same reward to Crazy Heart's star, the brilliant Jeff Bridges.
And seriously, is there a more consistently undervalued actor than Bridges? He's created countless iconic characters (The Dude, Starman, Duane in The Last Picture Show, Jack Baker in The Fabulous Baker Boys) and always delivers, his body of work impressively eclectic and customarily high quality. Pauline Kael wrote of him, way back in 1971, "Jeff Bridges just moves into a role and lives in it--so deep in it that the little things seem to come straight from the character's soul." If that was true then (which it certainly was), it has only become more accurate through the passing decades; as washed-up country singer "Bad" Blake, Bridges has never been better or more believable. He becomes this guy, gets down to his whiskey-soaked essence without ever playing an easy note or pandering for unearned sympathy. It's a marvel of a performance, and the movie damn near matches it.
Writer/director Scott Cooper (adapting Thomas Cobb's novel) sets the scene beautifully, with an extended sequence tracking with Blake through the day of a typical (and humiliating) gig, playing for a small but devoted crowd on the bandstand at a bowling alley. The next night, as a favor to his piano player, he grants an interview to the musician's niece, Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a local newspaper writer; their late night interview, in which he turns on his "famous charm," is delicate, tender, and wonderfully played ("Where'd all those songs come from?" she asks, and he replies, "Life, unfortunately"). They develop a kind of an understanding--they like each other, and perhaps they can lean on each other a little, as long as she doesn't push too hard and he doesn't drink in front of her young son (the wonderfully unaffected Jack Nation).
As a musician, Blake is mainly famous as a peripheral character; one of his old band members, Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), has become a country music superstar, and he resents the younger man's success, all the while angling to get him into the studio for a duet. Tommy can't do that, but he throws Blake a one-off opening slot, and promises his old mentor a handsome payday for writing him some new songs.
Early reviews have compared Crazy Heart to The Wrestler, and it shares not only that film's low-key approach and awards-friendly leading role, but a sure sense of its milieu; it feels authentic, whether dwelling in the world of back-roads honky-tonks and run-down motels or zipping around backstage at a big stadium show (the brief scene in which Blake bickers good-naturedly with the board op during his sound check is one I witnessed countless times while working at a performing arts center). The music, supervised by T-Bone Burnett (including input from Stephen Bruton, Gary Nicholson, and Ryan Bingham), is exactly as good as it should be--you can hear, within the songs, that Blake is genuinely talented (Bridges' singing and guitar playing are quite convincing) and could have been famous, but they're not so good that his fall from the spotlight isn't credible. Tommy Sweet's songs have a glossier, poppier sheen; Burnett and crew get that distinction right as well.
As Sweet, Farrell is relaxed, natural, and just plain good, better than he's been in years. Gyllenhaal role is a bit thankless (she has to cry a lot), but she gives it some real life and energy, and her chemistry with Bridges is better than it probably should be, considering the massive age gap. And then there's Robert Duvall, who pops up after you've forgotten he's even in the movie; the quiet scene that finds him and Bridges out on a leisurely fishing trip is like a laid-back master class in acting.
Bridges has several moments like that. There are two key scenes (a telephone chat with his estranged son, and a desperate talk late in the film with Gyllenhaal) in which he slowly realizes that the conversation isn't going to go the way he imagined, and the way that understanding flickers and passes across his face is the kind of great acting you just can't teach.
There's only one major flaw, though it's a doozy. Cooper, with grace and quiet elegance, brings the film to an absolutely perfect ending, and cuts to black; I took in a sharp breath, unable to believe that it had closed on such a sublime note. And then they fumble it, with one more scene, one scene too much, a tacked-on epilogue of unnecessary information and afterthoughts. It's a huge mistake, though certainly not enough to negate what comes before it; for the rest of its running time, Crazy Heart is a picture that doesn't take a false step.