Crazy Heart: Bridges burning bright

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CRAZY HEART
***
DIRECTED BY Scott Cooper
STARS Jeff Bridges, Maggie Gyllenhaal

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Robert Duvall appears in a supporting role in Crazy Heart and also serves as one of the film's producers. His participation in this project makes complete sense: He wanted to personally hand the baton off to Jeff Bridges.

After all, Duvall won his Best Actor Academy Award for 1983's Tender Mercies, and now here comes four-time nominee Bridges, the odds-on favorite to finally win his own Oscar for playing the same type of role essayed by Duvall — that of a rumpled, boozing, country & western star who enters into a relationship with a sympathetic woman at least two decades his junior.

Bridges' grizzled character goes by the name Bad Blake, and that first name describes less the man who bears it — he's fundamentally decent although, like most drunks, irresponsible and exhausting — than the circumstances of his present lot in life. Washed up, perpetually inebriated, and playing honky-tonk dives while his protégée, Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), fills up massive arenas, Blake stays in the fight even though the odds are against him ever achieving any renewed success. But suddenly, unexpected developments on the personal and professional fronts hold real promise. Sweet turns up and, clearly fond of his former mentor, offers him an opening slot on his tour and the opportunity to write new songs for him. And Blake, a multiple divorcé and unrepentant womanizer, finds a chance at a lasting relationship when he meets and falls for reporter Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a single mom whose young son also melts Blake's heart. Will Blake finally encounter true happiness, or will he find some way to screw everything up?

Adapting Thomas Cobbs' novel (although he might as well have been adapting Horton Foote's Tender Mercies script), writer-director Scott Cooper throws enough curve balls into the expected plotting to keep the narrative from completely dissolving into formula. For instance, one of the nicest touches in the film is that Sweet isn't the back-stabbing opportunist we anticipated but a respectful guy whose brand of neo-country showmanship simply appeals more to today's breed of country fan than Blake's traditional approach. The scenes between the two musicians are among the best in the movie, with Farrell seemingly as awed by Bridges as Sweet is by Blake. (Added bonus: Both stars do their own singing.)

Farrell's contribution is a solid one, and he and Paul Herman (in a sharp turn as Blake's agent) are the only performers even worth noting among the supporting players — Duvall is wasted as Blake's longtime buddy, while the talented Gyllenhaal never completely convinces us that her character would shack up with Blake. Otherwise, this is Bridges' show from start to finish, and he seems to be taking particular glee in letting it all hang out (sometimes literally, as a generous gut is frequently glimpsed bursting through an open shirt). Jeff Bridges is a great actor and Bad Blake a great character, and that's more than enough to make this otherwise unexceptional picture sing.

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