by George Sax
By far the greatest portion of praise and buzz that Scott Cooper’s Crazy Heart has been eliciting has focused on Jeff Bridge’s starring performance. There’s a reason for this, in addition to Bridges’ skillfully controlled acting: There isn’t a lot else going on in this film. Bridges has to carry most of the movie on his back, and Cooper was lucky to get him. (There were reports he initially was reluctant to accept the part.)
Bridges is Bad Blake, a seemingly spent 57-year-old singer and songwriter. Once a leading country performer, he now tours the American Southwest in an old SUV, playing in small bars with pickup bands.
Bad may be a spavined human being, but he can still summon his musical instincts and adeptness through his haze of semi-inebriation and cigarette smoke. Remarkably, his ambition has also survived, even if in a battered condition. He badgers his agent about a new recording contract, though he hasn’t written anything in three years.
Crazy Heart is mostly about Bad’s encounter with several closely spaced life-changing opportunities and challenges, as a man and an artist, a chance for redemption after a life of serious carelessness toward both himself and others. The chief agent of opportunity is a much younger music journalist (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who approaches him for an interview and stays around for personal reasons, inciting feelings he hasn’t experienced in a long time.
It’s not that a portrait of a down-and-out country performer with residual ambition is without promise. It’s that Crazy Heart doesn’t have much of a value-added approach to the material. And it’s not so much that Cooper is a bad writer (he adapted Thomas Cobb’s novel). He just doesn’t seem to be much of a presence in his own film. It’s persistently under-dramatized. The flattened affect and modest structuring of Crazy Heart must have been conscious choices, but the result is a movie that is too emotionally vacant and narratively inert. Toward the end, it plays out with something like the disinterested and uninflected tone of a documentary.
Gyllenhaal gives things a bit of lift in her scenes with Bridges but Cooper hasn’t made enough of their relationship to sustain enough dramatic interest. Colin Farrell (!) plays a singing star who was once Bad’s protégé, but whose relationship with him went south. At first he comes across as an evasive slickster, but this proves to be a misleading dead end. Robert Duvall is briefly on hand as a resolutely optimistic old pal of Bad, but it’s a marginal role. (Over a quarter century ago, Duvall played a roughly similar part in Tender Mercies.)
Bridges’ creation of slack, strangely hopeful old charmer is the vital center and the overwhelming presence in this film, and he gives it the heart the title references.
Watch the trailer for Crazy Heart
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