Better and Better

'Crazy Heart' has a stock story, but the music and the performances will stick with you

It's a good idea to go into life's ventures with low expectations. For example, being a teenager is nowhere near as appealing as vampire fiction would have you believe, and if you think otherwise, you'll be disappointed when you reach 17 without ever getting a glimpse of immortal crotch.

That said, I somehow went into Crazy Heart thinking it would be great. As a result, my short review would now be "not great." But I went with a friend, filmmaker Carey Burtt, and he enjoyed it. Burtt makes movies about humanity's general inability to understand anything more complex than the fear of being yelled at, so his expectations for everything are always low.

So now I'm reconsidering the upsides of this film.

Crazy Heart is stock story about a fading, alcoholic country musician (Jeff Bridges) who finds some degree of redemption in a relationship with the single mother (Maggie Gyllenhaal) of a young boy (Jack Nation). Strangely, that's also the plot description for Tender Mercies, which stars Robert Duvall, who has a small part in this film and was one of the producers.

So I wonder if Duvall thought, "Hell, Tender Mercies worked. Let's do it again!" Or maybe there really are only a limited number of characters and events, and if you put them in a bag and shake them up, you'll get "fading alcoholic country musician finds redemption with single mother of young boy" about once every 25 years.

Bridges is pretty great in the lead. You can really see the work that he put into this character: He almost always has his pants unbuttoned. He scratches the same side of his face. He consistently walks as though he has a hemorrhoid that lies just left of center.

He also does a great job of singing. Country music doesn't demand an operatic range or perfect pitch, but it is about delivering the lyrics with a voice that reeks of character. Bridges hits that, helped immensely by the songs that producer T-Bone Burnett wrote for him.

Burnett's songwriting here borders on genius, in part because some of the songs are not great, and some are. Bridges character, Bad Blake, is supposed to have had one big hit, with a bunch of midlist tunes that made him just famous enough to continue playing bowling alleys and bars in the dingier towns of the Southwest. So when he plays his B-sides, they sound like B-sides. But when he plays his hit, it sounds like a song that would have been huge in the '70s. It's a sort of rougher-edged "Gentle on my Mind" called "Fallin' and Flyin'." The melody and riffs are perfect, and the lyrics ("It's funny how fallin' feels like flyin' ... for a little while") sound like they fell out of the notebook that Johnny Cash left at his dope dealer's house in 1972.

Gyllenhaal is also surprisingly good in the part of Jean Craddock, a small-town reporter who, shockingly, and in a departure from every other film that has included a character who is a small-town reporter, dreams of bigger things. It's mildly gross to see her making out with Jeff Bridges, who, in this film, looks like a man who could be old enough to be Jeff Bridges. Still, I guess that's the convention in these sorts of movies, and complaining about it would be like getting annoyed that there are cat-faced space aliens in Planet of the Cat-Faced Space Aliens.

Even Colin Farrell turns in a thoughtful performance as Tommy Sweet, Bad Blake's former protégé who has gone on to become a stadium-filling superstar. Again, his character is a stock element in a film full of stock elements, but Farrell avoids the usual egocentric-musician act. Instead, Tommy is a really nice guy who just happens to look like an incredible asshole (i.e., Colin Farrell).

Which leads to the biggest problem with Crazy Heart: There's a surprising lack of tension, as though we were watching the dénouement from another movie, the one where Blake slid into alcoholism and despair. Crazy Heart mostly takes place in the third act of that other film, when things are getting better. There's background tension as we wait for Blake to mess up, and it seems clear just how he's going to mess up, but it doesn't happen until very late in the film. And then ... I don't want to give anything away, but he pretty much immediately gets his life back on track and does better than ever. I mean, that's not the end, and there is some lingering sadness, but Crazy Heart is 112 minutes of things getting better and better, then a brief hiccup, then things go back to getting better.

This is a weird formula for a formula film. Maybe it's first-time director Scott Cooper's way of working against some of the standard rhythms of this kind of narrative. Or maybe it's just a rookie mistake—but I found it more interesting the more I thought about it. Though I left the movie theater disappointed, and I can't say that the content of the story really stuck with me, I continued to think about the structure of the film, the artistic construction of the performances and the intelligence of the musical choices. Which is not exactly the same thing as being entertained by a movie, but it's better than the sort of candy-and-booze hangover you get from most big-budget action films.

Is that a compliment? I don't know.

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