Cooper's "Crazy Heart" Revives a Weary Genre
By Ethan Gates '12, Arts and Living Section Editor
“Ain’t rememberin’ wonderful?” These words are spoken by Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges), an aging country star, to a man who used to be his protégé but has now rocketed past him in fame. The younger musician has just been fondly recalling their carefree days on the road together. Bad Blake’s response intentionally drips with irony but can’t quite cover up the painful truth: for Bad Blake, remembering IS wonderful; or, at least, better than the alternative of living in the present. Later that night Bad (who insists on being called by his stage name) will be the opening act at a large concert for Tommy Sweet, the protégé, in a role reversal that Bad finds humiliating but has no choice other than to accept in order to pay the bills. Recently, Bad was reduced to playing a set in a bowling alley. He’s an alcoholic and has been married four times; remembering his past glory surely carries its own degree of pain, but is it worse than owning up to his current state?

“Crazy Heart,” the directorial debut of actor Scott Cooper based on a 1987 novel of the same name, is hardly original in its plot. The idea of a washed-up musician/athlete/actor seeking redemption and purpose has been one of Hollywood’s favorite topics over the years, and anyone who has seen one of these similar films will find no surprises in the twists and turns of Bad Blake’s journey. Where a film like this can still prove intriguing is in the strength of its script and the power of its actors; avoiding clichéd dialogue and providing raw, genuine performances helps a movie become something more than a formula. Most recently, Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler” delivered beautifully on that front last year; “Crazy Heart” doesn’t reach the same level of resonance but still manages to rise above the generic doldrums of its concept.

Most of the credit belongs to Jeff Bridges, for whom creating memorable characters is just business as usual. You’ll probably recognize him from his villainous turn in “Iron Man” or his cult-inspiring performance as the Dude in “The Big Lebowski,” but Bridges has consistently been stealing the show since his breakout role in “The Last Picture Show” over 35 years ago. He drinks, quips, grunts and mumbles incoherently like any good has-been country star should, but where Bridges really excels is in the subtler moments, especially the way his eyes get just a little brighter when he’s up on stage. Bad’s hard-living ways might have him in a tough spot for now, but I don’t think he ever completely forgets how lucky he is to have spent his life performing the music he loves.

A word about that music: I am no fan of country, but Cooper films the stage sequences with such love and energy, and with such attention to the natural charm of his actors, that it is easy to see what makes Bad Blake and Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell, for once sporting a convincing accent that is not his own) so popular. Written by producer and songwriter T-Bone Burnett (who also worked on the folk music arrangements on the surprising hit soundtrack of the 2000 film “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”), the music gives the film its eponymous heart. Asked where his songs come from, Bad replies, “from life, unfortunately.” It’s an amusing moment, but hardly the throwaway line it might seem. The lyrics of the songs all reflect (some, granted, more subtly than others) Blake’s life and the melancholy but steadfastly optimistic tone that dominates the film. This all culminates in “The Weary Kind,” a gorgeous little tune that Bad calls the best he’s ever written, and he’s probably right. Played in its entirety for the first time over the closing credits, “The Weary Kind” provides the same kind of emotional cap on “Crazy Heart” that Bruce Springsteen’s “The Wrestler” did for Aronofsky’s film.

Of course, for the purposes of our story, the music alone can never be quite enough to satisfy Bad Blake as he bounces from show to show. Enter Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a reporter hoping to interview the fallen legend. The romance that emerges between them is perfunctory, and developments involving Jean’s four-year-old son approach the downright manipulative. Luckily, the whole thing is salvaged by the unexpected chemistry between Bridges and Gyllenhaal (at last, Hollywood provides a spring-autumn romance that has a hint of, you know, genuine feeling to it).

Robert Duvall, meanwhile, shows up in a small role as Bad’s old friend Wayne. We get the sense that Bad Blake has been through just about everything in his life, but he could still learn something from Wayne. As Tommy Sweet, Farrell also bucks the traditional role handed to the young, up-and-coming star in such films. He hasn’t forgotten his mentor and stays loyal to the point that he can. No one in this film feels constructed or false.

“Crazy Heart” opens with a shot of the wide-open Texan countryside, the pale-blue sky stretching out forever over the dusty landscape. It’s an image the film will return to periodically and provides a hint for what this film is getting at. There’s no doubt this land is beautiful, but it can make you feel awfully small sometimes. Not pitiful, or weak or pessimistic. Just small. Can Bad Blake learn to live with that?

Issue 13, Submitted 2010-02-02 21:01:41