Jeff Bridges’ Oscar-winning performance redeems an otherwise bland melodrama.
Though sometimes overshadowed by his iconic turn as Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski, Jeff Bridges’ career stretches across almost four decades and dozens of accomplished performances. He’s the quintessential American actor’s actor, consistently bringing more to any given part than was written into the script while making each performance distinctly his own. He’s played aliens, serial killers, U.S. Presidents and cattle rustlers, among many other roles, but remained himself throughout. He’s made some bad movies, but he’s never been bad in a movie – an important difference.
For many years Bridges’ lack of Oscar recognition was held not against him but rather as proof of the Academy’s fallibility. “The Oscars aren’t perfect,” the argument went. “Hell, they’ve never given one to Jeff Bridges.” This month, after four previous nominations, he won the statue for his turn as washed-up Country & Western singer Bad Blake in writer-director Scott Cooper’s Crazy Heart. He deserves the recognition, even if the film isn’t one of the best in which he’s participated. For that matter, it’s not even very good.
At least the story, and its lead character, play directly to Bridges’ strengths. Once many years ago Blake was a performer with both fame and riches, but those times were long enough ago that now he’s reduced to playing gigs in bowling alleys and multi-night engagements in cheesy storefront bars. Blake endures the deprivation with a kind of threadbare resignation, saving his hostility for angry phone calls to his manager (Paul Herman). “I’m fifty-seven years old and I’m broke,” Blake bellows. He’s angry at his circumstances, mostly because he’s unable to cement a collaboration with former protegé Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), a modern C&W star who may be betraying Blake’s lessons of hard-living sincerity for the glitzier artifice of the current music industry. In the meantime Blake roams the Southwest in his battered Suburban, living more or less hand to mouth and from bottle to bottle. “I used to be somebody,” goes one of his songs. “Now I’m somebody else.”
His fortunes improve somewhat when the piano player in a Santa Fe pickup band asks for an interview on behalf of his niece Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Jean’s a single mother, vaguely lonely but devoted to her son Buddy (Jack Nation) and trying to make a living as a reporter. As their romance begins, halting and driven by Blake’s squinty charm, Blake is finally able to make inroads with Sweet, accepting a degrading but lucrative opening slot on Sweet’s tour and writing new songs for Sweet’s next album.
But Blake is unable to gracefully accept even tentative victories. When a lapse in the sobriety he promised Jean gets Buddy lost in a labyrinthine Houston shopping mall, the romance breaks apart, leaving Blake disconsolate. Aided by longtime friend Wayne (Robert Duvall), he eventually seeks treatment in a rehab clinic before rejoining Sweet on the road. Determined to start his whole life over, he attempts a “look at me now” reconciliation with Jean, but she refuses. The denouement, set sixteen months later, finds Blake sober and prosperous, with a now-married Jean ready to extend forgiveness.
The problem with all these story points is their vacuum-packed dearth of spontaneity. Cooper’s script, based on the 1987 novel by Thomas Cobb, doesn’t follow Blake’s predicament and eventual redemption so much as it lays out a course and bends everything around him to its own dramatic purposes. For a film ostensibly about someone’s life, there’s very little sense of unpredictability, or circumstances beyond the characters’ control. Instead the story moves itself along, each scene building explicitly on the one before. The most telling instance revolves around Buddy’s temporary disappearance in the mall. A riskier script might have it happen for no reason at all, simply an accident that Blake the diminished guardian was powerless to prevent; instead, it’s used as a plot point to propel the script into its third act, getting Blake from point B to point C with as little chance as necessary.
Such lack of nerve applies to the characters, as well. Though a talented actress with a resume full of provocative (if not thought-provoking) films, Gyllenhaal barely manages to get her character raised above the level of plot device. Jean is practically a life-spirit trope as much as an actual personality, all smiles and alluring femininity, with compassion and sex appeal and a cute Southwest cottage full of comfy furniture. The screenplay has her explain her every thought in concise sentences, all of which serve only to clarify the drama unfolding. Farrell’s Sweet is also underwritten, like Jean more of a destination for Blake than a fellow person. Duval, who starred in the similar but far more assured Tender Mercies (written by the great Horton Foote), plays the same “Gus” character you’ve seen him do dozens of times already. His scenes are limited, and they’re fine, but nothing revelatory.
Cooper’s direction is methodical, workmanlike, proficient, with scenes constructed so as to serve the story no more or no less than they need. It’s painting by numbers, if not exactly artistry. Many scenes are saved by T-Bone Burnett and Ryan Bingham’s dusty, winsome score, with the original songs both sounding fresh and defiantly part of the vanished authenticity that Blake doggedly, self-consciously represents. Like Bridges, the composers turn in Oscar-caliber work that was rewarded as such.
Through it all Bridges anchors the movie, and following Blake through the motions is entertaining for as much as the actor invests him with enough texture and nuance to carry the movie on his weathered back. To say the performance breaks new ground for the actor is to overstate the matter – a succinct appraisal might label Blake as “The Fisher Dude.” Nevertheless, there’s an old theory that being great at something means making it look easy, and there’s no denying Bridge’s ease at defining a character whose chief fault may lie in his refusal to ever work too hard. He’s the heart of a movie that’s far from crazy in taking chances.
- Michael Kabel