What it lacks in originality, "Crazy Heart" makes up for in delivery.
As has-been country great "Bad" Blake, Jeff Bridges delivers one of his most complete performances. He has already won a Golden Globe and is an Oscar front-runner.
We first meet Bad as he shows up for a gig in some dusty Southwestern town. The long-haired, bearded troubadour hauls himself out of his ancient SUV, zips up his pants and rebuckles his belt. (His middle-aged spread needs to breathe during those long drives.)
He checks in with the fawning owner of the bowling alley where he's booked at a cut-rate price, and then makes a beeline for the closest liquor store.
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The afternoon is devoted to getting drunk and watching porn in his motel room. To his credit, Bad doesn't disappoint his fans, even though he sometimes has to leave the stage to throw up in a trash can out back. If he's lucky he'll find a waitress or a middle-aged groupie with whom to spend the night.
He has been doing this for close to 30 years.
Bad is bitter that the yacht of fame and success has sailed without him, that former colleagues like Tommy Sweet (an astonishingly good Colin Farrell) have gone on to earn millions in big arena shows and record sales. But the truth is that Bad endures his hand-to-mouth existence because it demands nothing of him that might interfere with his real love: liquor.
Director Scott Cooper's screenplay follows a template established in films like "Tender Mercies" and "Walk the Line" — and especially the recent "The Wrestler." Basically it's this: A loser is redeemed by a good woman.
In "Crazy Heart" that function is wonderfully fulfilled by Maggie Gyllenhaal as Jean, a single mom in Santa Fe, N.M., who shows up to interview the one-time famous singer for the local newspaper and stays to see if there's anything beneath that shaggy charm.
Like Mickey Rourke's battered brawler in "The Wrestler," Bridges' Bad sees a chance for salvation and grabs it. He's happy to play daddy to Jean's young son (Jack Nation), especially since Bad has had no contact with his own grown son.
But despite his essential decency — Bad never deliberately hurts anyone — the guy is a drunk whose carelessness will jeopardize everything he has been working toward.
With the help of an old friend (Robert Duvall as an accommodating bar owner), Bad hits rehab. But is it too little, too late?
No, it's not terribly original. What makes it work is the convincing world Cooper and his players create — a world that features fine country tunes in a late '70s outlaw style, written mostly by T-Bone Burnett and Stephen Bruton and so authentically performed by Bridges that there are moments ("I used to be somebody," he sings, "now I am somebody else") when you wonder if he has been possessed by the ghost of Waylon Jennings.
Bridges takes other risks here. Bad is undeniably charismatic in a worn-out way — there's something of the old-fashioned gentleman about him in sober moments. During their initial interview in a seedy motel, he tells Jean that he doesn't want to discuss his own life. "I want to talk about how bad you make this room look."
But his moments of gentility are perennially threatened by selfishness and a surly attitude. This performance has us simultaneously rooting for his deliverance and thinking he deserves whatever happens to him. This is perfectly balanced high-wire acting.