I try not to fall victim to hype. Awards season, however, is a barrage of hype about the stars and movies the studios are pushing for recognition, and we as consumers of the product can’t help but be swayed. The hype machine this year follows Jeff Bridges and his performance as Bad Blake in CRAZY HEART. He has already won the Golden Globe for best dramatic performance, and is riding the same wave of “finally recognize this guy” popularity that Mickey Rourke faced last year after THE WRESTLER. The problem I faced with Bridges in CRAZY HEART, however, was the expectations this hype put in my head prior to watching the movie. It is a great performance by a diverse actor who can win over an audience as both an unemployed bowling enthusiast and the President of the United States, but it is reserved and played small and slow, with no real stand out moments. A small movie is not a bad thing, however, and this film deserves a look, especially for fans of country music and those with any knowledge of the heavy drinking, hard living Highwaymen, a group of outlaws Bad Blake looks like he missed by just a few years.
Bad Blake is 57 years old, and isn’t in the best physical or fiscal condition. He had his day and he has his fans, as shown by those who request his old favorites and the old women who throw themselves at him at his performances. However, his is now relegated to performing gigs wherever he can find them, and traveling to them all by his lonesome in his beat up old truck, including a long drive to Pueblo, Colorado to a bowling alley’s lounge called The Spare Room. He is booked at whatever he can find by his agent, played mostly by phone by Paul Herman, to get Blake whatever money he can after squandering his success on drinking and four failed marriages. He is interviewed for a local paper in Santa Fe by Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Jean, who falls for him for unknown reasons. Bad quickly forms a relationship with Jean’s son, played adorably by young Jack Nation, but Bad’s alcoholism isn’t exactly an endearing paternal quality. His best friend is a bartender played by Robert Duvall, and his protégé, Tommy Sweet (Collin Farrell), has become a headliner. They both advise and help him find some measure of recovery. However, as with most country music singer-songwriters, Bad Blake’s redemption is found in a song… inspired by his life. And his inspiration, also like most country music singer-songwriters, comes from a woman.
The music in the film is great. T Bone Burnett and Stephen Bruton put together some old school country songs reminiscent of the greats by Kris Kristofferson, but the true genius of the music is how they tailored it for Bridges’ voice and Bad Blake’s character. Bridges has fun with the fast songs “Somebody Else” and “I Don’t Know,” but also brings it down to a somber tone with “Hold On You” and “Brand New Angel.” And though we never hear Bridges sing the full song, “The Weary Kind” is definitely worth a listen, and hopefully an entry for Best Original Song at the Academy Awards this year.
It is in these songs and his portrayal of alcoholism that elevate Bridges’ performance, but the writing doesn’t allow him to take it to the emotional depths I was expecting. There is a subplot involving an adult son Bad hasn’t seen for 25 years, but it is hastily admitted to and quickly dismissed. The relationship with Jean is also strangely underwritten. Bad drops some good lines on her, but this is a May-December romance that’s never really explained. Musicians get women, I understand, but Jean never seems like the typical women who throw themselves at Bad at his shows. Gyllenhaal does well with her emotional scenes, though, and plays strong at the end. Robert Duvall is briefly used, though his counsel is welcome as someone who has known Bad for many years, and Colin Farrell does well as Tommy Sweet, toeing the line between a commercial success trying to help his mentor, but also not wanting to simply give in to his requests at the risk of hurting his career.
I think this year’s Oscar race comes down to Clooney versus Bridges, and with the hype surrounding Bridges performance and body of work, it’s looking like it is his to lose (though we invite you to read our full Oscar Breakdown in February). However, as an audience member, I suggest you ignore the hype before watching this film and just enjoy Bridges in it, or like me you’ll keep expecting that moment we can point to as definitive, and you’ll walk out a little disappointed. Clooney had those moments this year in UP IN THE AIR, and I was expecting them here.