Thursday, January 28, 2010

Crazy Heart: A bit too crazy?

Crazy Heart (2009) • View trailer for Crazy Heart
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: R, for profanity and sexual candor
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.28.10
Buy DVD: Crazy Heart • Buy Blu-Ray: Crazy Heart [Blu-ray]

Despite fine performances by Jeff Bridges and Maggie Gyllenhaal  and they're both exceptional  I simply could not get past the key plot point in Crazy Heart.

In no real-world scenario would an attractive and reasonably perceptive young woman such as Gyllenhaal's Jean fall for a slovenly, smelly, chain-smoking, burned-out alcoholic such as Bridges' Bad Blake.
Despite prudent instincts that silently scream advice to the contrary, small-
town journalist Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal) allows herself to be moved by the
seductive heat that radiates from her subject, aging country singer Bad Blake
(Jeff Bridges). Savvy viewers who watch the movie and then take a second
careful look at this photo will notice, however, that the studio publicists
cleaned Bridges up -- a lot -- before snapping this publicity still. In the film,
during this scene, Blake looks much, much seedier. (One assumes that's why
they call it "movie magic.")

It'd never happen.

She's in her late 20s, early 30s tops: single parent to an adorable 4-year-old son. Blake, at 57, is a shambling, falling-down, vomiting-as-a-recreational-sport career drunk.

No way.

Mind you, I hold this opinion despite being a guy who, in the usual Hollywood fantasyland style, would love to have somebody as cute as Gyllenhaal give me even a second glance when I hit 57. A good many of the women who attended last week's Sacramento preview screening were much more troubled, and quite vocal in their objections and disbelief.

Writer/director Scott Cooper's film is based on a novel by Thomas Cobb, who I'll assume dealt with this issue more persuasively. Maybe Jean's character is older in the book. Maybe Blake isn't quite that much of a wreck.

Whatever. On the big screen, it's an insurmountable hurdle.

So is the notion, a bit later, that Jean would trust her young son  absolutely the most precious thing in her life  in Blake's unchaperoned care. Again, no way.

Crazy Heart also suffers from deja-vu; we've definitely been here before, most notably with Robert Duvall's Academy Award-winning performance in 1983's Tender Mercies, which also concerned a washed-up country singer seeking redemption. Switch careers, and we again saw this saga played out a year ago, when Mickey Rourke impressed everybody so much with his starring role in The Wrestler.

That film also had a May/October romantic subplot, but with an important distinction: Marisa Tomei's career stripper was pretty down and out herself. She and Rourke were cut from the same cloth to begin with, and had been equally disillusioned by forever getting stuck with  to quote Marilyn Monroe, in Some Like It Hot  "the fuzzy end of the lollipop."


We catch up to Blake as he pulls into the parking lot of a flyspeck Midwestern bowling alley, where his longtime, long-suffering agent has booked him for the evening. Although Blake speaks heroically about never having missed a performance, he apparently overlooks his tendency to be too drunk to sing. Despite this, he usually can find an aging and similarly shopworn female fan to share his bed.

Blake's life has become a mind-numbing series of similarly humiliating bookings: a particularly galling fate because a former protege, Tommy Sweet (an unbilled Colin Farrell) has achieved rock star-style fame in the interim ... thanks in great part to his covers of Blake's original songs. Blake's manager repeatedly points out that career salvation is just a few fresh songs away, but our tired hero can't be bothered; it's not so much that the muse has abandoned him, but rather his unwillingness to even try.

(Given this film's downwardly spiraling storyline, and the ironic fact that many great songs are written by folks in the throes of despair, it's safe to assume that Blake eventually will find the proper motivation.)

Jean, carefully trying to avoid her own previous mistakes, has embarked on a modest career as a journalist, writing features pieces for a paper serving the town where Blake next stops. She requests an interview; he obliges. Sort of. It takes place in his dilapidated motel room; he barely dresses, continues to smoke and eat his unappealing dinner, and delivers flip responses to her honest efforts to probe beneath his disheveled surface.

At first, anyway. Something about her focused interest makes a growing impression, and Blake does his best to improve the impression he's making. It's one of Bridges' numerous great scenes: a masterpiece of subtlety. Most people would look about, scrambling to find better clothes to put on; Blake seems to be trying to figure out how to find and wear a better skin.

Not too far into the subsequent evening's follow-up interview, when Jean asks what he'd like to discuss, Blake replies with one of the best pick-up lines I've heard in years:

"I'd like to talk about how bad you make this room look."

Bridges and Gyllenhaal deserve credit for the ample sexual tension that follows ... but they still can't sell what happens next.

The rest is the old, old story. She wants to believe the best in him, despite knowing better; he wants to improve himself for her, despite the unrelenting pull of demon whiskey.

Bridges certainly captivates; he's in pretty much every scene, and his performance is all-consuming. He fully inhabits Blake's unpleasant, rough-edged persona, and it's easy to see why Bridges took a Golden Globe Award and has become the man to beat in the 2009 best actor Oscar category. And, arguably, he deserves the win.

And not merely for the fine acting; Bridges also performs the songs that are such an important part of his character's very existence: engaging tunes actually written by T Bone Burnett (O Brother Where Art Thou? and Walk the Line, among numerous other films) and the late guitarist, songwriter and record producer Stephen Bruton, who died of cancer just as this film was entering post-production.

Gyllenhaal's Jean is sultry, sexy, playful and mischievous by turns; she positively shivers when around Blake. He's drunk on alcohol; she's drunk on the primal experience of love itself, and the foolish hope that it can surmount all obstacles. (If only!) She also has numerous strong scenes, one of the most unexpected coming when she bursts into tears after Blake noodles his way through a new song while lying on her bed.

She knows, instinctively, that this moment  so precious to her  won't even register in his mind.

Duvall, in an interesting coincidence, pops up as Wayne, Blake's one and only true friend. Naturally  and sadly  Wayne runs a bar. Wayne has the maturity of greater years, though, and doesn't hesitate to kick his best friend in the rear if the situation demands; it's the sort of part Duvall plays quite well.

Farrell's Tommy Sweet also is an intriguing character: a guy just as trapped by success as Blake is by failure. The two of them make a single fairly stable human being, which explains their ongoing love/hate relationship; they really can't exist without each other.

Music fans may recognize singer/songwriter Ryan Bingham, who pops up as the leader of the back-up band that performs with Blake at the bowling alley. Bingham also wrote one of this film's more memorable songs, "The Weary Kind."

All these strong performances aside, Cooper's film simply doesn't flow all that well. It's slow, repetitive, even boring at times. Crazy Heart is renewed proof that even the best acting cannot surmount a flawed script. These are fascinating characters, played well by talented actors; they deserve a better canvas on which to shine.

Cooper the director should have been savvy enough to hire somebody else to write the script.

Your response to this film, then, will depend on the degree to which you can embrace Blake, Jean, Tommy and Wayne simply for themselves  and appreciate the well-suited music  while overlooking the more unlikely plot elements.

For some, that'll be a tough sell.

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