Does it seem a little odd to you that folks are already touting his work in Crazy Heart as the role for which Jeff Bridges will be remembered? First of all, the guy's only 60; his dad's name was showing up on call sheets well into his 80s. Barring calamity, he has a good many years of what will surely be terrific work ahead of him. Second, he's one of the most shamefully underrated actors around. He's already delivered several Oscar-nominated and Oscar-worthy, if not Oscar-winning, performances—the Dude, anyone?—so let's stop acting like Crazy Heart is some sort of who-knew-he-had-it-in-him revelation a la The Wrestler. It's Bridges doing what he does exceedingly well, and what he's been doing for several decades now.
Granted, he rarely gets a chance to showcase his talents as prominently as he does in this low-key drama about a used-up country singer who has finally arrived at a crossroads. Bad Blake was once one of the top country stars in the business, but his past glory can only take him so far. Oft-divorced, largely forgotten by the younger generation of radio-country fans, and addicted to self-destruction in general and alcohol in particular, Bad now earns a meager living crisscrossing the country in his rusted '78 Suburban, playing for gas money in music stores and bowling alleys. He's still a legend, mind you—young superstar Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), who has Bad to thank for his skyrocketing career, wants nothing more than for the aging musician to write a few new songs for him—but Bad can't get himself sober enough to crank out any new tunes. He's determined to simply stay drunk and keep playing the old songs that earned him his reputation so many years ago.
If there's one thing country music has taught us, though, it's that misery is buoyant in booze. No matter how desperately Bad tries to shove his problems to the bottom of a bottle of McClure's whiskey, they inevitably bob right back up to the top. He's broke, his health is failing, and he can no longer get a solo record deal. When he meets an ambitious young reporter named Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal), the budding romance between them dangles redemption in front of him like a carrot on a really long stick; will Bad opt for salvation in the form of his neglected songwriting talent and the love of a decent woman, or will he simply drink himself to death in an endless blur of sweat-sour bars and seedy motels? Hanging its narrative on a series of surprisingly good musical performances (Bridges and Farrell both do their own singing), Crazy Heart follows Bad on a journey that will either lead to a second chance or an early grave.
Sounds pretty clichéd, huh? In all honesty, it is. Crazy Heart lacks the subtleties and nuance of Tender Mercies, to which it will inevitably be compared. First-time director Scott Cooper's script, based on Thomas Cobb's 1987 novel of the same name, often seems hesitant to go the distance. The film's solutions are a little too easy, its relationships a bit too contrived. In spite of its often dazzling photography, Crazy Heart has a tendency to feel a little too much like a TV movie. (Incidentally, it was produced by CMT and saved from a direct-to-DVD release by Fox Searchlight after its original distributor, Paramount Vantage, folded.)
If the script pulls a few punches, though, Bridges never does. His unglamorous, often devastating portrayal of a deeply flawed but essentially sympathetic character elevates the material to something that shouldn't be missed. He holds nothing back. Whether he's on his knees in front of a toilet or crooning on an embarrassingly small stage, Bridges inhabits the character so completely that little of the actor is left. Sometimes he's a smooth-talking charmer and sometimes he's almost unbearably pitiful, but for better or worse, he's all Bad. Thanks to Bridges' performance, we become so emotionally invested in Bad's journey that we can overlook Crazy Heart's shortcomings, and appreciate it for the gentle, big-hearted film that it is.
Or you could ignore all that and just see it for T-Bone Burnett's outstanding soundtrack of bluesy, vintage-sounding country tunes inspired by the likes of George Jones and Peggy Lee. It's easy to see why Bridges passed on the film until Burnett's involvement was confirmed. The legendary music producer, who was also the man behind the soundtracks of O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Walk the Line, has come up with an impressive lineup of the kind of country songs you wish they still played on the radio. Up-and-comer Ryan Bingham, with his Golden Globe win for "The Weary Kind," might be the face that people will associate with Crazy Heart's songs, but it's Burnett who is Bridges' real co-star.