In writer-director Scott Cooper’s feature debut, based on Thomas Cobb’s novel, Jeff Bridges plays an aging country-and-western crooner who’s just about washed up, with most of the washing evidently done by booze. Bridges’ Bad Blake sits comfortably within the musical tradition of Williams, Jennings, Nelson, Kristofferson (among other artists in other traditions), and less comfortably within his own broken-down life, which of course is why the music works so well. “Falling feels like flying,” he sings. “For a little while.”
So what’s Bad Blake’s story? Well, he’s got lots of them. These days, Bad gigs mostly in dive bars and bowling alleys, with younger players who respect him enough to let him wander offstage, mid-chorus, to puke in the parking lot. It’s OK; he’ll be back in time to bring the tune home. And maybe to bring someone from the audience home. After all, he’s a pro.
Bad once had a protege, sensitively played by Colin Farrell, who has risen up to huge success in the slick new country-music scene, but hasn’t forgotten his mentor’s tutelage — even though forgetting might be easier for both of them. And of course he still has the songs, and the booze.
The he meets Maggie Gyllenhaal as Jean, a would-be journalist who shows up at his New Mexico motel room for an interview. She’s younger than Bad by a lot, but you can’t call her a kid. She’s got a kid, in fact, and she’s raising him alone. So she knows what those songs are about, and what the drinking is about, too.
It’s clear how this will have to work. The sudden, phony intimacy of that interview will give way to the gradual, more genuine, and maybe more dangerous intimacy of a love affair. But how? “I want to talk about how bad you make this room look,” he tells her early in their first talk. It’s a line, but a good one. Like one of his lyrics.
Watching “Crazy Heart” unfold, it’s hard not to think of Robert Duvall in “Tender Mercies,” not least because Duvall shows up in this movie too. But Cooper knows what he’s doing, and we do too: This will be one of those inherently awardable performances — a probable stereotype restored to an archetype. As such, it might not have succeeded without Bridges, who inhabits his character with stoic, illusionless dignity, nor without some exceptional original songs by T-Bone Burnett and Stephen Bruton, who tailored them directly to Bridges’ gifts.
There’s a leanness to this tale, and an almost numbing familiarity. Maybe it’s like one of those songs in Bad Blake’s repertoire. You know how it’ll go, of course you do, and you don’t listen in order to be surprised. You listen to be reminded: of disappointments, self-destructions, regrets, and the truthful, tuneful fantasy of potential redemption.
It’s an easy groove to get into.