Film Review: Crazy Heart

Jeff Bridges channels Hank Williams, Jr. and Kris Kristofferson for his portrayal of an alcohol-addled outlaw country star hoping for one more chance.

Four-time Oscar-nominee Jeff Bridges must be hoping the fifth time’s the charm, since his performance as hardscrabble and hard-living country singer Bad Blake will be the buzz that brings audiences to theatres as Crazy Heart opens to qualify for this year’s Academy Awards. His portrayal of an aging alcoholic dousing his life with whiskey deserves recognition, although the film offers the character a too-glib redemption (and no-fuss rehab) before sending him off into a feel-good sunset. Country music is famously described as three chords and the truth; less touted is its tendency to slip into the key of sentimentality. Let’s just say that Crazy Heart serves its bourbon in a dirty glass, with a seltzer and lemon chaser.

“Bad,” as fans and friends refer to him with various degrees of irony, earned his moniker the old-fashioned way—busting up four (or is it five?) marriages and alienating everyone in the industry with his self-destructive, uncompromising approach to life and art. Once a headline performer and sought-after songwriter, he’s been reduced to playing bowling alleys and dog-eared honkytonks, driving from gig to gig in a beat-up suburban wagon. In Santa Fe, a local journalist (Maggie Gyllenhaal) recovering from her own broken marriage and busted dreams manages to waylay him for a rare interview, and the two fall into an affair more serious than either expected. But Bad has a deeper bond with booze, and as Charlie Daniels put it, he’s drinking his baby goodbye.

First-time director Scott Cooper, who wrote the script and co-produced the film, convinces us that a desirable young woman might actually be attracted to a broken-down drunk—then again, Bridges has an uncanny ability to make pot-bellied rogues curiously sexy—and, as a musician and actor himself, Cooper gets the music and mise-en-scène right, with a little help from his friends. The renowned music producer T Bone Burnett (who put together the soundtracks for O Brother Where Art Thou? and Walk the Line) and late songwriter Stephen Bruton wrote the tunes and coached Bridges, who performs several of them with enough style to make us believe Bad must have been good once. Production designer Waldemar Kalinowski (Appaloosa), working on a tight budget, uses actual locations to capture the sensibility of the American Southwest. With all due respect to Bridges, Gyllenhaal and their co-star Robert Duvall, who plays Bad Blake’s best friend, the best thing about Crazy Heart is the roughhewn bars, fleabag motels, bungalow homes and ranch houses where the action takes place—not to mention the evocative desert highways that connect them.

The songs that punctuate Crazy Heart aren’t chart-toppers but provide some memorable lines (“I used to be somebody / Now I’m somebody else”). There’s also a “surprise cameo,” as the production notes put it, by a well-known actor portraying the earring-studded, ponytailed “new country” superstar mentored by Blake. The gambit backfires, in part because the actor’s American accent sounds as flat as the Oklahoma panhandle. One wonders why the producers didn’t invite a real country celebrity, say the telegenic Kenny Chesney, to play the part…after all, Nashville long ago went Hollywood.