Gruff yet accommodating, boozed-up but not quite washed up, country singer Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges) is an endearingly tragic character who could easily come back in vogue as a retro-hip discovery for a new generation if he can just live long enough to see it happen. Molded as a kind of mash-up of Waylon Jennings and Townes Van Zandt, Bad has been relegated ' by time and self-destruction ' to sloppy throwback sessions at bowling alleys and cowpoke bars, and as long as he gets some gas money, smokes and a few drops of whiskey, he's mostly fine with that. He has the ability to strum a few chords and belch out an instant classic-to-be, but he figures, 'Why bother?â?� The country scene has moved on from Bad Blake, and he can take a hint.
Enter Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a newbie music writer for a small Southwest paper, who seems to understand Bad's nouveau-cool appeal and, with her beauty and nonjudgmental ease, gets him to talk. The two fall for each other despite her misgivings about exposing her young child to this stumbling drunk, and suddenly Bad's career shows the slightest hint of a pulse again.
Crazy Heart could have so effortlessly (and lazily) slipped into typical musical biopic trappings ' tortured detox scenes, epic monologues that reveal inner demons, real-life events inspiring sudden hit tunes. It's both a fault and the secret of the film's appeal that debut writer-director Scott Cooper takes the more genial road every time the opportunity presents itself: Crazy Heart is a nice-guy movie, but at times, too eager to please. When Craddock makes a potentially disastrous decision, she's slapped on the wrist with a mild moment of terror before she makes the right choice. Likewise Bad Blake, who may not find the pretty package of redemption he really wanted, but will settle for a fine consolation prize. Even the film's closest thing to an antagonist, Colin Farrell, as a dead-on Nashville pop-country superstar who learned the ropes from Bad long ago, is about as cordial and honestly appreciative of Bad's talents as any mentor could hope for. Cooper's filmmaking choices are satisfying but feel like empty calories afterward.
A lot of that feeling comes from executive meddling: Cooper actually shot many of the standard 'darkâ?� scenes but was coerced to make the picture more appealing. Strangely, that studio mentality works well for Crazy Heart and gives it the feel of an escapist film. It allows us to bathe in the loving details Cooper gets so very right: Bad's appreciation of a good piano player, or the way he unbuckles his belt while he's driving to give his gut some breathing room, or his graciously low expectations of older, smaller crowds. And those songs by über-producer T-Bone Burnett and his gang of songwriters! It's much easier to accept Bad Blake's ongoing appeal when his supposed oldie classics (performed by Bridges himself) sound like the best songs you've never heard.
If the film itself is slight, there's no diminishing the heft thazat Bridges brings. The actor shares with Bad Blake a way of lingering in the mind as someone you might want to catch up with down the road. In his portrayal of Bad Blake, he smartly plays up that quality, since it's the very key to Bad's existence. When you rely on casual acquaintances for food and shelter whenever you drop by their town, you'd better make them feel good about it. And Crazy Heart wants nothing more than to leave a good impression.
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