Crazy Heart could also be known as The Wrestler: The Musical: washed up has-been tries to piece together a life out of a once-successful career while fighting addiction, trying to reconcile with an estranged child, and wooing a younger woman. But whereas Mickey Rourke played a wrestler, Jeff Bridges plays singer/songwriter Bad Blake and provides a soundtrack to his misery. Fittingly, his music is the music of pain: country.
Based on Thomas Cobb’s novel from 1987 and adapted and directed by Scott Cooper, Crazy Heart is something of a wet dream for those in a mid-life crisis. Because even as Bad is sinking fast, he’s having an affair with a much younger woman, music writer Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal).
Bad is barely eking out a living playing crappy venues in forgotten towns where the woman who sleep with him are about as attractive as the hotel bedspread and a plastic cup filled with liquor he can’t afford is the only constant he knows. When a local reporter, Jean, requests an interview, it sparks a love affair that will forever alter both of their lives. It’s the type of plot that usually only exists in, well, a country song. And when that is stretched out over nearly two hours, it leaves too much time to spot the holes.
The role of Bad is tailor-made for awards consideration. That’s not to say that Bridges doesn’t do an excellent job in the role — he does. But anytime you have an out-of-shape man puking his guts into a toilet while wearing only tightie-whities the buzz is inevitable. Performing the songs and taking Bad from low to lower, Bridges is convincing and fearless in his performance. Rourke had the physicality from the wrestling matches on his side; Bridges only has his guitar and rather than hide behind it he uses it as a magnifying glass into Bad’s life. It sounds like he’s speaking with a mouth full of marbles at times, but maybe they’re just pebbles from hitting rock bottom.
Gyllenhaal’s performance as the reporter looking for the ultimate scoop is strong, but the film’s greatest faltering centers on her character. Jean is immediately smitten by Bad, which is not outside the realm of possibility when a fan meets a star. But her crying jag so soon after meeting Bad about how much she’s going to miss him makes her whole character sort of pathetic. It just feels like Hollywood’s obsession with pairing old men and young women taken to the extreme.
As the opening act that succeed when Bad failed, Colin Farrell is actually wonderful as country star Tommy Sweet. Also performing his own songs, Farrell’s long hair and accent-less performance is a wonderful juxtaposition between new country and old.
Naturally there’s a soundtrack of country music running in the background of the entire film, so die-hard country haters are going to cringe, but T-Bone Burnett’s music, co-written with the late Stephen Bruton, is fantastic. Surprisingly strong performances by the stars do the songs justice and it gives the film an air of authenticity.
As dire and dreary as Bad’s life is, the cinematography of landscapes is absolutely stunning. Capturing the wide expanses of countryside that inspires the genre, cinematographer Barry Markowitz brings a level of beauty otherwise absent from Cooper’s portrait of a man.
Although Crazy Heart and The Wrestler are similar in many ways, there’s one thing that really sets them apart: hope. Even when pathetic, Bridges’ Bad is never past the point of no return. There’s an old joke, “What happens when you play a country song backwards?” The snarky answer being, “You get your wife back, your horse back, your trailer back.” While Bad has no choice but to live his life forward, he manages to hold out hope that there might be a next track on the album that’s going to be a little bit better. So keep listening.