Maggie Gyllenhaal and Jeff Bridges hold each other in a romance that could easily have been a country song...oh yeah, it is.
(Fox Searchlight) Jeff Bridges, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Robert Duvall, Colin Farrell, Colin Farrell’s eyebrows, James Keane, Rick Dial, Jack Nation, Ryan Bingham, Ryil Adamson, J. Michael Oliva, Debrianna Mansini. Directed by Scott Cooper
As humans, we all make mistakes and it is sometimes the case that we pay for those mistakes for a very long time. That we sometimes pay more than we think we owe is part of the human condition and is part of what we all have in common, one of the five universal truths of our existence.
Bad Blake (Bridges) is 57 years old and nearly broke. He was once a bright star in the country music scene, making songs that have retained a certain amount of popularity, enough to keep him on the road going from dive to dive, playing his songs with local musicians backing him in front of audiences ranging from disinterested to star-struck. He is even reduced to playing bowling alleys, where he is not allowed a bar tab but is given, enthusiastically, all the free bowling he desires.
Bad is an alcoholic, a product of too many years on the road, too many disappointments. He is constantly butting heads with his agent (Keane) who clearly has affection towards his client but is just as clearly frustrated with his antics. The drinking has prevented Bad from writing new songs in several years; it has just as surely destroyed most of the relationships in his life. Mostly these days he drifts from one nameless one-night-stand to another, a different drunken encounter with past-their-prime women in each small town he plays in.
In Santa Fe, New Mexico one of the musicians he has been assigned, a proficient keyboard player named Wesley Barnes (Dial) asks Bad if it would be okay if his niece Jean (Gyllenhaal), a writer for the local paper, interviews him. Bad is not real crazy about doing press, but he recognizes that he needs every bit of it he can get so he says yes. There is something about Jean that immediately connects to him. Maybe it’s her vulnerability, her familiarity with the music he grew up with. Maybe it’s just that she has a smoking hot body. Either way, Bad develops a hankering for her, one that leads to romance.
One of Bad’s protégés is Tommy Sweet (Farrell), who once played in Bad’s backup band and has since broken away to become one of the biggest stars in country music. The two have had a falling-out since then, with Bad seemingly resentful of Tommy’s success, but still maintaining a grudging admiration for the man. For Tommy’s part, he is certainly aware of Bad’s role in his career and is willing to help, even if his record company isn’t so keen on the idea. Tommy arranges for Bad to open for him in Phoenix, giving the road-weary legend renewed exposure to the big time.
On the way back from Phoenix Bad decides to stop back in Santa Fe and visit Jean and her four-year-old son Buddy (Nation) who has bonded with Bad, but on the way there he falls asleep at the wheel – very likely because he’s had too much to drink – and crashes his truck. He wakes up in a Santa Fe hospital with a broken ankle and a concussion. He is in no condition to drive back home to Houston, so he convalesces with Jean. He begins to experience a sense of what it’s like to be part of a family, the kind of life he gave up, along with a son who is now grown and that he hasn’t seen since he was Buddy’s age.
However, Jean is disturbed by Bad’s excessive drinking and smoking, and asks him to tone it down around Buddy. Bad, ever-cheerful, promises to do so but he has a hard time doing it. As he is getting ready to head back home, his agent calls with the news that he has signed a contract to do some song-writing for Tommy Sweet. This could mean some real money, the first in a long time for Bad. After a tender good-bye, he drives home to Houston.
He is welcomed home by his friend Wayne (Duvall), the owner of a bar that he plays in from time to time. Inspired by his relationship with Jean, Bad begins writing some of the best songs of his career and invites Jean to visit him in Houston with Buddy. Can Bad really make a go at it this late in the game, or will his vices come boiling up to the surface with another installment payment on his sins due?
Jeff Bridges has emerged as the favorite (and, having never won one despite three nominations, the sentimental favorite as well) to win the Best Actor Oscar and with as much certainty as one can ever predict such things, will do so. We’ve seen the broken-down drunk country singer in countless movies and CMT music videos; in Bridges, we believe it. We see him seemingly hit bottom only to find a way to descend even further. He means well, and he’s not really a bad guy, he’s just possessed by the bottle.
The surprise is that Gyllenhaal emerges with a performance which stands up to Bridges. She is given the role of a much younger woman falling for a man that on the surface there is no reason for her to fall for. He stinks of cigarettes and booze, is clearly not the best-looking rider in the rodeo and can only be counted upon to mess up. Still, she manages to make us believe that the romance which is at the core of the movie is real and believable, even if we can’t quite see how it is happening.
The temptation here would have been to use music that had some pop potential, cranked out by slick Nashville songwriters or Hollywood pop producers. Instead, the filmmakers enlisted T-Bone Burnett, a producer/songwriter/performer who has never hit it really big but is well-respected within the music industry. He has managed to craft songs that have elements of Leonard Cohen, Waylon Jennings, John Hiatt and even a little bit of Ryan Adams in them. The soundtrack is truly incredible, equal parts country, blues and rock. Bridges and Farrell sing their own parts (including a duet) and they do a credible job, Bridges’ gravelly road-weary voice sounding exactly what you would think a whiskey and cigarette-roughened throat would produce. It’s quite simply one of the better film soundtracks ever.
As someone who has spent enough time in bars and clubs in my days as a rock critic, I can vouch for the authenticity of the movie. I’ve been to shows where performers from days gone by come in all their faded glory to play for an audience looking to recapture their youth for just a few hours, balanced out with a select few who merely want to touch something magical while its still there. It is an environment of desperation and determined battle against the demons of drink and age. You can almost smell the roadhouse perfume of stale beer and tobacco, with a vague whiff of vomit permeating the movie. This would certainly have made the top half of my Years Best list had I seen it during 2009; I may wind up granting it an exception to appear on my 2010 list because it deserves to be lauded.
Every so often a movie comes along that just grabs your imagination and holds it, and the result is that you experience a kind of magic that changes you or at least your perception. While Crazy Heart has a few cliches in its genetic makeup, it still accomplishes that magic that occurs when the performances, filmmaking and music all come together in a perfect blend. This is Bad Blake’s journey and while it isn’t an easy one, it is a compelling ride to be sure.
REASONS TO GO: Bridges gives the performance of a lifetime, and Gyllenhaal a powerful turn that nicely offsets his. The music for this movie is wonderful and the soundtrack worth seeking out.
REASONS TO STAY: The plot occasionally veers into territory that has been well-mined in the past, and it is never clear why Jean falls for him in the first place.
FAMILY VALUES: The language is rather blue here, and there’s some sexuality, but more than that there is a lot of drinking (and the consequences of it) and smoking. Probably a little rough for the younger ones, but mature teens should be okay with this.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The big Phoenix concert scenes were filmed between sets at a Toby Keith concert. Keith is thanked in the credits.
HOME OR THEATER: While much of the movie is small and intimate, nonetheless the concert sequences work better on a bigger screen.
FINAL RATING: 9/10
TOMORROW: English as a Second Language