Jeff Bridges won an Oscar for this film and lord knows I can’t hold it against him. He’s quietly excellent in the role of Otis ‘Bad’ Blake, a near-terminally exhausted, barely functional Country and Western artist who’s still a legend for many but whose wayward life has reduced him to a shambling, alcoholic jerkwad stuck playing in bowling alleys and obscure bars across the American West. With his ailing gait, protruding paunch, slovenly yet efficient mannerisms and grouchy, clueless, no-way-out stoicism, he presents the physical traits of a man who’s just smart enough to know what a walking cliché he is and can still puncture his self-imposed bubble of wounded-lion pride when he knows it’s necessary. Bridges thus pulls off a truly coherent, convincing performance, always within the terms of his own discursive, unforced style of acting. Not many other actors could move with as little self-consciousness from Iron Man’s smooth villainy to this ramshackle titan.
He’s not alone in this: equally good are Maggie Gyllenhaal as Jean Craddock, the still-young but already worldly wise journalist he meets and has an affair with against her better judgement, and Colin Farrell as Tommy Sweet, a now hugely successful but still definably decent, grateful protégé of Bad’s who’s carefully, quietly determined not to repeat any of his mentor’s mistakes and to pay back the favours of a former life. Bridges’ and Farrell’s core scene together is a superb example of what two excellent actors can do with scant material, a little opera of sidewards, embarrassed glances, inspecific gazes, tossed-off epigrams of personality and haikus of meaning passing between them. Bridges and Gyllenhaal make a surprisingly sexy couple, his grizzled but charming hopelessness striking sparks off her tendency to become fascinated and attracted to precisely what she knows she stay a mile away from.
It’s a pity that the film around them is such a slow slog to nowhere. Director Scott Cooper gives his cast a lot of breathing room, and the luck he had in landing such actors is not to be underemphasised. Full of appreciable little details, from Bad accidentally drawing three cigarettes out of a packet with his mouth, to dicking about with sound engineers and contending with pick-up bands, Crazy Heart does channel, chiefly during its first half, a properly flaky texture and ragged sense of a peripatetic man’s excruciating lifestyle at an age when the wear’s starting to tell and he can’t yet admit it. Cooper also displays a reasonably authentic sense of the music scene’s niggling minutiae. Automatically evoking Tender Mercies as an Oscar-grab vehicle for an aging actor to display grit and gravitas in playing a honkytonk hero fumbling his way out of a downward spiral (and Robert Duvall even turns up as Bad’s best bud bar owner), Crazy Heart, finally can’t think of a way to deepen and specify its dramatic form without taking a long road through second-hand scenes and uninspired redemptive shtick, with a glum, finally rather off-putting process of kicking Bad just enough to make him wise up and not enough to make him want to jam his truck into a river. Reawakening in these sorts of films always demands humiliating a man and taking away the few things that make his life, and the film, entertaining. The screenplay, penned by Cooper from Thomas Cobb's '80s novel, proves, on examination, rather shallow. Virtually nothing about Bad’s life and background is revealed, and the final crisis that sunders his and Jean’s relationship is more than a little forced both in tone and reaction. Bad's problem with alcohol is presented as the root of his troubles, and yet to what degree it was cause of or result of a life lived on the road, locked within the merciless exigencies of creativity and performing, is a question the film doesn't try to deal with at all, and the psychology of the piece remains therefore very limited.
Cooper’s filmmaking provokes mixed feelings: adopting a laid-back, stand-offish shooting style that drinks in panoramic landscape shots and lets his cast do their thing without the camera jammed in their faces, he does create a suitably meditative space for both collapse and renewal to take place, infused with a sense of the natural environment that is both enemy (in scale, for the effort of driving back and forth across the country is helping him to fray faster) and irreducible ally (in its evocations and beauty, intrinsic to the music Bad writes). And yet it finally retreats into some truly facile depictions of rehabilitation, which only requires some circle confessional, smiling coaches, and energetic old pals to advise you. Scene set-ups and storytelling flow are lazy to a finally wearying extreme. Where the film might have been transcendent infused with a dash of mythic scale or bewildered distance (a la Wim Wenders), Cooper’s method is finally literal to the point of tedium. This does not help the finally far too obvious storyline, and the cumulative effect doesn’t really feel worth the effort of waiting for it play out. One line of Bad’s, which proves a little self-congratulatory on the filmmakers’ part, observes that good songs always sound like you’ve heard them before, but Crazy Heart really is a song you have heard before, and better.