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Road Rues

Classic hard-luck tale of the country singer not so classic this time around

Jeff Bridges snuggles up to Maggie Gyllenhaal (and a widely predicted Oscar nomination).

Crazy Heart

Director:Scott Cooper
Cast:Jeff Bridges, James Keane, Tom Bower, Beth Grant, Rick Dial, Maggie Gyllenhaal
Release Date:2010

Opens Jan. 15

By Bret McCabe | Posted 1/13/2010

"That's the thing about the good ones," singer/songwriter "Bad" Blake (Jeff Bridges) tells Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal) about a song he just wrote. "You've heard them all before." That's the magic actor-turned-filmmaker Scott Cooper hopes to work in his writing/directorial debut. Based on Thomas Cobb's 1987 novel of the same name, Crazy Heart chronicles the hard-scrabble life of Blake, a country and western singer who, at 57, fears his best years are behind him. Bad choices--about his career, his personal life, his health--have him staring at the bottom through a whiskey-filled glass. But perhaps with the love of the right woman, he can find a third act to his life. Yes, you've heard this one before--and Cooper hopes his take on it is creative enough to carry it along.

The answer is a little yes, but more no. Crazy boasts a strong if loose performance by Bridges and some pretty good tunes courtesy T-Bone Burnett and the late Stephen Bruton, who lost his battle with throat cancer last year. Bridges' Bad is an ornery and charismatic enough central figure, but the well-trod travails that he endures don't just feel predictable, they feel a little tired. Maybe it's unfair to expect a little more from an indie-minded, character-driven slice-of-life drama than peddling that tired yarn about a middle-aged man finding the road to redemption in a younger woman's arms, but that's just how these eyeballs feel.

Bridges, though, gets to play a helluva cuss in Bad, who won't disclose his real name for fear of tarnishing his minor myth. Crazy introduces him driving down a highway out West in his trusty tour vehicle, a rust-and-sand Chevrolet Silverado that serves as both gear-hauler and, possibly, sleeping compartment should the situation require. And the first real glimpse of Bad sets the tone of the kind of life he lives: He parks at his latest tour stop, a bowling alley in a Podunk town off the highway, steps onto the gravel parking lot with his pants open--Bridges spends most of the movie with his big-buckled belt and the top button of his jeans undone--and then reaches in and grabs the plastic container he's been using as a urinal and dumps it on the ground.

Bad has seen enough of this world to know life doesn't play fair. He's been through a handful of marriages, has a 28-year-old son he doesn't know, smokes and drinks way too much, stumbles from roadside motel to roadside motel and occasionally leaves a local woman to wake up alone in his room, and hasn't written a new song in so long he's not sure those muscles know how to do it anymore. Bad's career, such as it is, is entirely supported by these crappy gigs he plays at bowling alleys and small saloons with local pick-up bands. No label wants to gamble on producing an album by an aging singer with no new songs, and he's stuck earning money for gas, booze, and smokes on these solo trips through the Southwest.

To make matters worse, Bad's former C&W running buddy, the younger Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), is now a Nashville star playing 12,000-seat pavilions and touring with a three-bus armada of gear and support. Tommy is a living reminder of everything Bad's career isn't. The unstated tension between the two when Bad opens for Tommy in Phoenix colors their first face-to-face conversation in what could be years, each avoiding eye contact and shifting the subject back to the good old days of remembering when. Tommy adds insult to injury by asking Bad to write songs for him--for a price that Bad hasn't seen in years, in ever.

Jean, though, makes Bad pause when he crosses her path. He takes a shine to this younger single mother, a reporter for a Santa Fe newspaper who interviews him during his stop there and slowly appears to be warming to his flattery and attentions. They begin a romance ill-fated from the start--from the moment you see Jean flash her irresistible smile at Bad you know he's hooked, and from the moment he visits her home and meets her young son, you know Bad is going to find a way to permit his life to screw things up.

That he does is less a fault with Crazy's predictability than the quality of its predecessors. Robert Duvall (whose Butcher's Fun Films produced) shows up as Bad's best friend in his Houston hometown, but he serves as a visual reminder that this movie was much more moving and poetic when it starred Duvall and was called Tender Mercies in 1983. A more pressing question is why Bridges gets tapped to grow his hair and beard out for this role in a world where Kris Kristofferson exists.

It's a fair question given that Kristofferson and Crazy Heart's original music writers Burnett and Bruton go way back. Bruton played in Kristofferson's band for nearly two decades, and Burnett and Bruton were childhood pals. Of the three, Bruton's career was most similar to Bad Blake's. Bruton is the lesser-known talent outside of honky-tonk fans who knew the company he kept--playing with Delbert McClinton and Bonnie Raitt, his songs recorded by Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, producing albums for Alejandro Escovedo and Jimmie Dale Gilmore--and the artist who more than likely was most familiar with the road life of evacuating his bladder while driving. Bridges does a workmanlike job of bringing Bad Blake to life, but the songs Bruton penned for the movie--dig the sly self-deprecation of "I used to be somebody, now I'm somebody else" of "Somebody Else"--tell the only stories worth remembering here.

E-mail Bret McCabe

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