Friday, January 15, 2010

Film Reviews: 'Crazy Heart'

A Country Crooner Whose Flight Is Now Free Fall

The New York Times
December 16, 2009
Correction Appended

“Crazy Heart,” written and directed by Scott Cooper, is a small movie perfectly scaled to the big performance at its center. It offers some picturesque views of out-of-the-way parts of the American West, but the dominant feature of its landscape is Bad Blake, a wayward, aging country singer played by Jeff Bridges.

Lorey Sebastian/20th Century Fox

Jeff Bridges and Maggie Gyllenhaal in “Crazy Heart.”

Those last four words should be sufficient recommendation. Some of Mr. Bridges’s peers may have burned more intensely in their prime, but very few American actors over the past 35 years have flickered and smoldered with such craft and resilience. Neither blandly likable nor operatically emotional, this actor has a sly kind of charisma and a casual intelligence. You suspect that he may be smarter than some of the characters he plays — the lounge musician in “The Fabulous Baker Boys,” the deadbeat bowler in “The Big Lebowski,” the egotistical author in “The Door in the Floor,” to take just a few examples — but also that he knows every corner and shadow of each one’s mind.

Unlike Mr. Bridges, Bad, who is 57, seems to be running on the last fumes of his talent. He drives from one gig to another in a battered truck, playing bowling alleys and bars with local pickup bands and sleeping in less-than-deluxe accommodations. He smokes and drinks as if trying to settle a long-ago bet between his liver and his lungs about which he would destroy first. The chorus to his signature song (one of several written especially for Mr. Bridges) observes that “falling feels like flying, for a little while.” That time has long since passed for Bad, who is scraping the bottom and trying not to complain too much about it (except when he can get his agent on the phone).

Drinking, cheating, love gone wrong — a lot of country music expresses the weary stoicism of self-inflicted defeat. Loss and abjection are two of the chords that define the genre. A third is redemption, which has also been a theme of modest, regionally inflected American independent cinema for quite some time. So even before Maggie Gyllenhaal shows up as Jean, a New Mexico journalist with a cute young son and some disappointments of her own, you can be pretty sure that you’re in for yet another drama of second chances and late-breaking epiphanies.

But no one ever put on a country record in search of novelty or wild surprise. What you seek in those songs is honest feeling and musical skill. Even in decline, Bad has both of those things, and enough professionalism to keep complete self-destruction at bay. Performing in front of a small, appreciative crowd in Colorado, he strikes up an old hit and then hands the song off to the band so he can run offstage and vomit in the parking lot, returning just in time to sing the final chorus and make eye contact with the groupie he’ll wake up with the next morning.

What does Jean see in this wreck? Mr. Bridges, settling into Mr. Cooper’s understated script as if he’d written it himself, makes the answer both obvious and a little enigmatic. There is a playboy’s charm and an old-fashioned Southern courtliness half-hidden behind the weariness, the anger at squandered possibilities, the flabby gut and the unkempt beard. This fellow may be bad, but he’s also dignified.

Bad’s own songs express this tension, as do other selections on the soundtrack (overseen by T Bone Burnett), which help to establish this fictional musician’s place in the actual musical universe. His main connection to the current country scene is Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), a former protégé who has hit the big time and whose support Bad both desperately wants and is sometimes too proud to accept. Tommy is part of a slick new breed that pays respect to the stalwarts of the past (as any good country singer must), but whose smoothness nonetheless gets under the skin of his sandpapery former mentor.

In his first interview with Jean, Bad pays the expected homage to precursors like Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell, but really he belongs in more recent, somewhat rougher company. Bad’s home — when he’s there — is in Houston, and the voices that accompany his comings and goings are mostly drawn from the outlaws and renegades associated with Texas in the era of his early manhood. You hear songs by Townes van Zandt and Waylon Jennings, and you may also think of Willie Nelson and some others. As for Mr. Bridges: he can’t help it if he looks like Kris Kristofferson and sounds a little like David Allan Coe.

When Robert Duvall (a producer of “Crazy Heart”) turns up as one of Bad’s old friends, you might also remember Mac Sledge, the Bad Blake figure he played in Bruce Beresford’s 1983 film, “Tender Mercies.” Mr. Cooper’s movie owes an obvious debt to that one, but there can never be too many songs about drinking, loving and feeling bad, and there is always room for another version of that old song about the guy who messed it all up and kept on going. Especially when that guy can play the tune as truly and as well as Mr. Bridges.

“Crazy Heart” is rated R. (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.) Drinking, smoking, sex and swearing. If that ain’t country ...


Opens on Wednesday in New York and Los Angeles.

Directed by Scott Cooper; written by Mr. Cooper, based on the novel by Thomas Cobb; director of photography, Barry Markowitz; edited by John Axelrad; music by Stephen Bruton and T Bone Burnett; production designer, Waldemar Kalinowski; produced by Mr. Cooper, Robert Duvall, Rob Carliner, Judy Cairo and Mr. Burnett; released by Fox Searchlight Pictures. Running time: 1 hour 51 minutes.

WITH: Jeff Bridges (Bad Blake), Maggie Gyllenhaal (Jean Craddock), Robert Duvall (Wayne), Tom Bower (Bill Wilson), James Keane (Manager), Colin Farrell (Tommy Sweet), William Marquez (Doctor), Ryan Bingham (Tony) and Paul Herman (Jack Greene).

Correction: December 31, 2009

A film review on Dec. 16 about “Crazy Heart” referred incorrectly to the crediting of the actor Colin Farrell, who plays the character Tommy Sweet. While he was not credited in the copy of the film seen by the reviewer, he is in fact given a credit in the movie, as noted in the listing of credits that accompanied the review.

More About This Movie
Tickets & Showtimes
New York Times Review
Cast, Credits & Awards
Readers' Reviews
Trailers & Clips

Audio Slide Show
Behind the Music

Film: This Texan Knows How That Texan Sounds (December 6, 2009)
A Surprise Gets Buzz for Oscars (November 19, 2009)

Country-tuned ‘Crazy’ is all art

By Kyle Smith
New York Post
December 16, 2009

Brokedown country singer tries to crawl out of the bottle and into the arms of a good woman. Supporting figures: cute kid and younger, handsomer rival singer.

“Crazy Heart” — “Tender Mercies” minus the Christianity, “The Wrestler” on bourbon instead of steroids — can’t possibly deserve your close attention. Yet it does, with distilled honky-tonk poetry and generous good humor. It’s one of the year’s best, most deeply felt films.

The first feature from director Scott Cooper, who also wrote the script based on a novel by Thomas Cobb, is a showcase for Jeff Bridges, who provides the year’s signature performance by a lead actor.

Bridges fully inhabits singer Bad Blake, from his wrecked liver to his tornado hair. His breath is combustible, his hygiene lamentable, his future brief. The '78 Suburban he drives around is livelier than he is. “I used to be somebody,” he sings in a desperation gig at a bowling alley. “But now I am somebody else.”

The departed somebody was a hit songwriter now forgotten by the public if not by such fans as a former student and current top star, Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell, who must have been tempted to dial up the yee-hawing but doesn’t). The somebody else has roughly as many ex-wives as fans, and more empty bottles than either. Also there’s a grown son, somewhere. Bad doesn’t know him, and never will.

Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is a journalist with a small son of her own. She won’t let him be raised by another whiskey slave, but even so she finds herself leaning in to get a closer look at what’s flickering inside Bad — dying talent, maybe, unless it’s something else. She wants to know where all his songs come from (“Life, unfortunately,” says Bad, with woeful authority). He wants to talk about how she makes the room around her feel ashamed of itself.

Gyllenhaal, though she is essentially the romantic version of a straight man, eases comfortably into the role instead of showing us how hard she’s working at it, with a sparkle in her eyes that is all the movie needs to keep Bad trying to be good. Uncertainly, she even allows the geezer to baby-sit her child for a day. What might the planned activities be? “Man stuff!” he says, and the boy agrees. “Man stuff!”

Such found moments — so elegant and mature is the screenplay that it usually doesn’t seem to have been written at all — make for genuine laughs, just as the bleak interludes involve recognizable, simple, ruinous mistakes (in the car, at the mall). Directing a picture like this one requires precision and dedication. The game is finished if we ever get the sense that our chain is being yanked, that we’re being sold a story instead of told one. But thanks to evocative settings, compassionate acting (including a brief but warm, funny appearance by Robert Duvall) and the high-caliber country songs written for the film, “Crazy Heart” is humbly radiant, a small thing gracefully done.

Crazy Heart

December 23, 2009

Some actors are blessed. Jeff Bridges is one of them. Ever since his breakthrough role in "The Last Picture Show" in 1971, he has, seemingly without effort, created a series of characters who we simply believe, even the alien "Starman." He doesn't do this with mannerisms but with their exclusion; his acting is as clear as running water. Look at him playing Bad Blake in "Crazy Heart." The notion of a broke-down, boozy country singer is an archetype in pop culture. We've seen this story before. The difference is, Bad Blake makes us believe it happened to him.

That's acting. There's a line of dialogue in the movie that I jotted down at the time, and it's been cited by several critics. Bad Blake is being interviewed in his shabby motel room by Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a newspaper reporter. She's taking him, gently, to places he doesn't want to go. He's been interviewed about the subject too many times. He doesn't say that. He says, "I want to talk about how bad you make this room look."

It's such a good line I can hardly believe I've never heard it before. Bad Blake perhaps knows it sounds like something out of an old movie. It's also the kind of line written by a singer-songwriter, the masking of emotion by ironic displacement, the indirect apology for seedy circumstances. She blushes. I can't think of a better way for the movie to get to where it has to go next. No shy apologies. No cynicism. Just that he wrote a great line of a country song, and it was for her.

BEVERLY HILLS, CA - DECEMBER 08: Actor Robert Duvall, actress Maggie Gyllenhaal, actor Scott Cooper, actor Jeff Bridges and actor Ryan Bingham arrive at the premiere of Fox Searchlight's 'Crazy Heat' on December 8, 2009 in Beverly Hills, California.

Bridges, Gyllenhaal and Scott Cooper, the first-time writer-director, find that note all through the movie. It's like a country-western cliche happening for the first time. Bridges doesn't play drunk or hung over or newly in love in the ways we're accustomed to. It's like Bad has lived so long and been through so much that he's too worn out to add any spin to exactly the way he feels.

Bad Blake was a star once, years ago. He has lyrics that go, "I used to be somebody, but now I'm somebody else." His loyal manager (James Keane) once booked him in top venues. As "Crazy Heart" opens, Bad is pulling up to a bowling alley. "It's this year's 'The Wrestler,' " one of my colleagues observed after the screening. Yes. Bad still has a few loyal fans, but you get the feeling they've followed him to the bottom. He has a son he's lost touch with and hasn't written a good song in a long time. In the old days, he toured with a kid named Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell). Now Tommy is a big star, but contrary to the conventions of such stories, hasn't forgotten his old teacher and remains loyal.

Maybe, we're thinking, with the love of a good woman Bad could turn it around. It's not that simple in "Crazy Heart." Jean is a good woman, but can she afford to love this wreck 25 years older than she is? Certainly not if he continues to drink, and maybe not in any case. And it's not easy for Bad to stop drinking; he's descended below his bottom.

How does Bridges do this without making the character some sort of pitiful and self-pitying basket case? The presence of Robert Duvall here, playing his old friend and acting as one of the producers of this movie, is a reminder of Duvall's own "Tender Mercies" (1983), another great film about a has-been country singer and a good woman (Tess Harper). It's a measure of Bridges, Duvall, Gyllenhaal and Harper that they create completely different characters.

One of the ways the movie might have gone wrong is if the singing and the songs hadn't sounded right. They do. Bridges has an easy, sandpapery voice that sounds as if it's been through some good songs and good whiskey, and the film's original songs are by T-Bone Burnett and Stephen Bruton (who died of cancer in May at Burnett's home). Bridges conveys the difficult feelings of a singer keeping his dogged pride while performing in a bowling alley.

The movie knows more about alcoholism than many films do, and has more of that wisdom onscreen, not least from the Duvall character. Gyllenhaal's character, too, is not an enabler or an alibi artist, but a woman who feels with her mind as well as her heart. Watch her as she and Bridges find the same level of mutual confidence for their characters. One of the reasons we trust the film is that neither Bad nor Jean is acting out illusions. Colin Farrell, too, is on the same page. We understand why he stays loyal, to the degree that he can. This is a rare story that knows people don't always forget those who helped them on the way up.

Jeff Bridges is a virtual certainty to win his first Oscar, after four nominations. The movie was once set for 2010 release (and before that, I hear, was going straight to cable). The more people saw it, the more they were convinced this was a great performance. Fox Searchlight stepped in, bought the rights and screened it extensively in December for critics' groups, who all but unanimously voted for Bridges as the year's best actor. We're good for something.

Cast & Credits

Bad Blake- Jeff Bridges
Jean- Maggie Gyllenhaal
Wayne- Robert Duvall
Tommy Sweet- Colin Farrell
Manager- James Keane

Fox Searchlight presents a film written and directed by Scott Cooper. Based on the novel by Thomas Cobb. Running time: 112 minutes. Rated R (for language and brief sexuality).

Hank Thompson: 'Crazy Heart's' real-life Bad Blake

Pop & Hiss
The L.A. Times music blog
December 28, 2009 3:05 pm

Jeff Bridges' star turn in "Crazy Heart" as downtrodden country music legend Bad Blake has been earning the veteran actor some of the most glowing reviews of his career, from writers who have invoked the names of many real-life musicians in their assessments of Bridges' portrayal of the fictional Blake.

"Peering into that face, you'd swear it's Kris Kristofferson," Mary Pols wrote in Time magazine. Rolling Stone's Peter Travers suggested that "Bad is an outlaw combo of Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard."

And in the New York Times’ review, A.O. Scott noted that during the film, "You hear songs by Townes van Zandt and Waylon Jennings, and you may also think of Willie Nelson and some others. As for Mr. Bridges: He can't help it if he looks like Kris Kristofferson and sounds a little like David Allan Coe."

Few, however, have zeroed in on the Country Music Hall of Fame member who actually inspired the creation of Bad Blake in Thomas Cobb's 1987 novel: Hank Thompson.

"I used to be a country music writer," Cobb told me after flying out from his home in Rhode Island to attend the film's star-studded premiere in Beverly Hills. "This was in Houston, and I went to cover a show one night -- it was an arena show with Conway Twitty, and Hank Thompson opened for him."
Thompson was best known for his 1952 hit "The Wild Side of Life," which topped the country chart for 15 weeks, and had a remarkably long career, placing records on the country charts in five decades, from 1948 to 1983. He toured tirelessly, upwards of 200 to 250 shows a year until shortly before he died at age 82 in 2007.

For that early-'80s show with Twitty in Houston, Cobb recalled, "He was backed that night by a local band that I knew had been called that morning and asked 'Do you want to back Hank Thompson tonight?' I thought, 'What a horrible thing: that someone of Hank Thompson’s stature was playing with a pickup band, and a band that didn't even know they were backing him until that morning. That was part of it."

At the time, Cobb was working on his doctorate in creative writing, and wrote up the incident for one of his classes. "I had to have a story ready the next day for a workshop, when I put on a new John Anderson record and heard the song 'Would You Catch a Falling Star'."

That song, written by Bobby Braddock, certainly evokes the character that Bridges plays onscreen:

He had a silver plated bus and a million country fans
And now there's just a few of us, and he drives a little van
And they were beating down his door, the lovely women, left and right
And now he's on the hardwood floor, a-wonderin' where he'll spend the night

Would you catch a fallin' star before he crashes to the ground?
Don't you know how people are, nobody loves you when you're down
Pick me up and take me home, and I'll bring my old guitar
Sing a golden oldie song, if you'll catch a fallin' star.

With that image swirling in his mind, Cobb said, "I started thinking of Hank Thompson, sat down and wrote what was essentially first chapter of the book.

"I had interviewed Hank Williams Jr., Hoyt Axton, Lacy J. Dalton and George Strait, when he was first starting out," Cobb said. "I spent fair amount of time on their buses -- when they were parked, so I had a really good idea of what the life was about. … It took me eight months to write, writing about three pages a night. Nothing has ever come that easily again. It was one of those little bits of grace."

The book, however, wasn't a big hit, and went out of print not long after it was published. The movie rights had been optioned several times, though nothing ever materialized. When screenwriter-director Scott Cooper approached Cobb about four years ago to take another shot at turning it into a movie, the author didn’t think much about, much less that it would quickly land two Golden Globe nominations and much talk about possible Academy Award nods.

"It's been a miraculous little film," Cobb said. "Scott’s fond of saying that if it had taken one more year, he never would have gotten it made. He got financing right before Lehman Brothers [investment bank] crash. There's been all this serendipity, these wonderful accidents, with this person getting attached, then that person. I frankly after 22 years never really expected to see this film made"

--Randy Lewis

Top photo: Jeff Bridges as Bad Blake in "Crazy Heart." Credit: Lorey Sebastian/Fox Searchlight. Second photo: Country singer Hank Thompson. Credit: File

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