As much as Country Western music is derided, there’s something romantic about its weathered subject matter. An ambling loner in a bar, a whiskey and a beer, a battered jukebox. It’s cliche, but it’s also purely American, and this is I think is what allows it to transcend a genre so many people love to hate. This archetype forms the basis of Crazy Heart, written and directed by Scott Cooper in his debut behind the camera. Following that lone figure through the travails of his older years, the film surveys the modern American West lifestyle as well as the broader themes of a washed-up musician, tiredly yearning for his glory days.
By virtue of his trade and not his choice, Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges) is a ceaseless wanderer. In his battered old pick-up, loaded down with guitars and equipment, he meanders from town to town to play the local bars. The same songs every night, the crowd favorites, keep his past in his present. But Blake accepts his fate and holds few grudges for his lot. Only Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), his once protege and now the leading man, only he can remind Bad Blake of the divergent courses of life, and only he can stir Blake’s pride. Bad’s roaming brings him to an interview with Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhall) a small town reporter, and whether it’s her intelligence or her youth or both, he sees something lacking from his usual post-show fling. Some kind of relationship is bred, and Bad Blake grows closer to Jean and her young son then he has to anyone in quite awhile. But of course, there’s no happy ending for an old cowboy and the vices he’s built over a lifetime keep Jean from allowing Blake fully into their lives. And so, a crossroads. Going forward means bettering a lifetime of bad habits and swallowing his steely pride. It means an old man changing the nature of himself. A feat to be sure, though for a man just looking for another story to tell, few things carry the weight of the road to recovery.
It’s hard to discuss this story without at least mentioning The Wrestler. For nearly half of the movie the two films seem identical. A washed-up star, formerly exalted and unable or incapable of imagining a future that doesn’t employ the only talent he really has. Though the two stories do eventually split, it’s impossible not to be reminded of how many writers out there are struggling to tell an original story and watch as a film is released six months prior that does it for them. Still, though the emotional tone feels eerily similar at times, Crazy Heart of course has enumerable differences in character and setting and style and so on.
As far as Jeff Bridges and his Academy Award Nominated performance, I feel a bit forced to take issue. I generally really enjoy Jeff Bridges and as we’ve seen throughout his career, he’s capable of many types of characters. But for as much as the camera is turned on him, there’s nothing about this performance that pushes past good. If this were somehow a breakout character for him, or something so different, so groundbreaking we’d be forced to acknowledge him for it then I wouldn’t feel as inclined to think of this as just a weak year for actors. There’s so little hard acting here. So few moments that rival the great performances of all time. Yes, Jeff Bridges is great, but is he great in this movie? Meh. He dabbles in the distress of alcoholism and quietly writhes in the turmoil of a broken heart, and it’s fine, it’s good. But there is no singular moment of revelation in this role. This nomination, to me, is all about timing. It’s that time of year, and it’s that time of his career. Let’s applaud all the great things he’s done without pretending this is the best, shall we?
Perhaps it’s just that around February I get a little more critical. It’s hard not to think of the politics that come in releasing a film a month before the Academy Awards, and there’s no doubt in my mind that whatever studio is backing it is doing plenty of behind the scenes wheeling and dealing. So a movie like this, with a Best Actor nod and a number of strong names in the cast, feels a little underwhelming. It’s pretty, and pleasant. There’s heartbreak and growth. The elements all seem to be in place. But I simply can’t call this film anything other than good. I want to be rocked by performance when I watch an Academy nominated actor, and I want to feel something more than mild enjoyment when the lights come up. I want to stew on the subject for days and still be excited by the resolution. In every case this is too much to ask, but in some cases, rare cases, it’s not ungrateful to expect just a little bit more than I bargained for.