I’m not necessarily a country fan, at least not if we’re talking the “achy-breaky heart” variety. Then, on the other hand, there’s Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson, and … yeah, those guys. Crazy Heart lives at that end of the street, just for a reference. Written and directed by Scott Cooper and based on the novel with the same name by Thomas Cobb, this is the story of a country music singer-songwriter called “Bad” Blake played brilliantly by Jeff Bridges. The whole narrative is actually pretty neatly summed up by the featured song “Fallin’ & Flyin’”. Well, that and “The Weary Kind”.
Before I even get into the turbulent and tragic life that is the downslide of a former country star, let me just take a minute to say that this is the most brilliant piece of casting you could possibly ask for. Bridges’ performance as a hard-living, pudgy, constantly inebriated musician is absolutely stellar. This could so easily have been a melodrama, a sad and woeful tale of not wasting your talent with scoundrel ways, but there’s a wealth of humor and experience that Bridges brings to the performance that makes Bad Blake likeable, despite the fact that he is no doubt not a very pleasant person. Not to mention the fact that Bridges can actually sing and play - which lends a whole lot of authenticity to the story. Those of us who remember The Fabulous Baker Boys already knew that, but this is something else.
Another piece of unexpected genius is casting Colin Farrell as Blake’s younger prodigy done good, Tommy Sweet. The two have an obviously troubled relationship but Sweet is trying to help Blake despite that, out of loyalty. There can be no doubt that Blake is the better songwriter, but he’s basically a mess - unlike Sweet, who is on the rise. Farrell actually pulls off being a good old boy charmer with the voice to fill a stadium.
Blake meets the young journalist Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal) when she comes to interview him and they fall into a relationship that is actually oddly endearing, despite the age difference and the fact that she has a serious fan-girl crush on the ageing star. Her son, Buddy (Jack Nation), takes to the singer as well. When Blake gets into an accident whilst driving under the influence, Jean takes care of him for a while. The doctor tells Blake that if he doesn’t stop drinking and smoking and lose some weight, he hasn’t got more than a couple of years left. Blake hears the advice, but he doesn’t listen. It isn’t until he has manages to effectively end the relationship by losing Buddy in a mall while he was getting a drink that something shifts for Blake. He actually cleans up his act after that.
The thing about this story is that it does play like a county song. You’ve got your loose women and drinking in bars and failed ideals and a messed-up life traveling the roads and falling in love with a good woman who leaves when things get too scary. It’s all there. Bad Blake is good at what he does, even when he’s so hung over he has to rush off stage to go puke in a garbage can, but he’s not very good at being a decent human being.
Crazy Heart is one of those movies that gets to where it wants to go without belittling the audience, or the actors, with overly obvious morals, or any kind of histrionics, really. It’s low key, cautiously optimistic within the realm of possibility, and it has real heart and real humanity. Things don’t get magically fixed by the end. Blake doesn’t end up with the girl, the horse, and the money, but he is in a better place than when the story begins. It’s still a long road to redemption and there’s still a lot of baggage for the recovering alcoholic, and that’s part of the point. Bridges earned the Oscar for this one - and he richly deserved it. So, in the end, it doesn’t really matter if you’re a country fan or not, this is a movie very much worth watching.