Eugene Weekly : Movies : 2.11.10


Falling Up
He used to be somebody. Now he’s somebody else
by Jason Blair

CRAZY HEART: Directed by Scott Cooper. Written by Cooper, based on the novel by Thomas Cobb. Cinematography, Barry Markowitz. Music, T-Bone Burnett, Stephen Bruton and Ryan Bingham. Starring Jeff Bridges, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Colin Farrell and Robert Duvall. Fox Searchlight, 2009. R. 112 minutes.

Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart

“A way out west there was a fella … a fella by the name of Jeff Lebowski.” With those words, the world was introduced to The Big Lebowski, a film in which a gentle deadbeat loses his rug, his car and his legal standing in Malibu. Performed by Jeff Bridges, Jeffrey “the Dude” Lebowski is a cosmic creation without equal, a perpetually stoned and frequently misunderstood idealist who, aside from his zeal for bowling, is “high in the running” for laziest man worldwide. In Crazy Heart, Bridges plays a failure of another sort. A former country music star and full-time alcoholic, Bad Blake is the Dude with a darker streak. He’s broke, alone and out on tour in a shabby Suburban, and the venues aren’t what they used to be. “Fucking bowling alley,” he mutters, pouring his bottled urine into the parking lot. Should you perceive an homage to Lebowski, think again. This is strictly The Wrestler territory.

Like The Wrestler, Crazy Heart is a modest character study, a film less about what happens than surviving what has happened. In that sense, Crazy Heart is remarkable for the turns it doesn’t take. In Blake’s first show, we sense what was once there, but mostly we register what’s been lost. Blake is idolized by the crowd, but they’re too few in number, and it isn’t until Santa Fe that he finds his legs. At the request of a bandmate, Blake grants an interview to the much younger Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal). They clearly spark in his hotel room, but she’s caught off guard and he releases her; the next night, she returns, prompting one of the great lines in recent memory: “I want to talk about how bad you make this room look.” Before you start imagining a happy ending for the couple, know that Crazy Heart, while thinly plotted, is mostly a downward arc. It’s not about getting back to the top so much as stopping what’s clearly a freefall. This isn’t Walk the Line. It’s more like Can’t Walk a Line.

Blake is haunted by his former association with Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), a huge country star Blake once mentored. Sweet is a subject Blake tries to avoid, even with Jean, with whom he forms a relationship. Gyllenhaal’s heart-shaped face has never been more vulnerable. Her Jean is both fierce and unable to protect herself, while Bridges gives a performance that should be watched again and again. In a liquor store, Blake, short the money to buy his favorite whisky, is recognized by the store proprietor, who buys the bottle for him. Watch how quickly Blake’s hand goes for the whisky. And notice the way Blake remembers the man’s name. Watch Blake, stooped with exhaustion, hump his own gear into a bar in Santa Fe. Watch Bridges’ face, like cordial granite, staring out from the stage Blake just abandoned to go vomit, or tip-toeing out on a one-night stand. Bridges’ Blake is the best performance of the year because he does the most with the least material. When Jean asks Blake where his songs come from, he answers “Life, unfortunately,” and you never doubt him. Nowadays, life just wheezes out of him.

First-time director Scott Cooper, who adapted the Thomas Cobb novel, shows extraordinary restraint in Crazy Heart. (His film was headed straight to video until Fox Searchlight acquired it.) In addition to Farrell, who brings a reluctant swagger to Tommy — perhaps taking his deference to Blake too far — Crazy Heart is a welcome return for Robert Duvall. Duvall plays Wayne, Blake’s closest friend back in Houston. Duvall and Bridges are responsible for my favorite scene of 2009: Wayne and Blake on a fishing boat, Wayne trying to keep old wounds closed by lightly singing a Billy Joe Shaver song. In the back of the boat, Blake nurses a hangover that might be his last one or just his next one.

Crazy Heart opens Friday, Feb. 12, at the Bijou.