Crazy Heart is this year's The Wrestler - a true character study built on pain, suffering, angst and real human emotion with a standout performance by the lead actor. Instead of over-the-hill wrestler Randy the Ram spilling his blood on the stage as he fades into obscurity we get the burned-out 57-year-old country star Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges) on a binge of self-destruction.Blake travels in a battered Suburban performing at bowling alleys and dive bars in a string of low-paying, low-turnout gigs with pickup bands along the way. Playing a Gretsch guitar through an old Fender Tremolux amp and sleeping in sleazy motels, Blake smokes and drinks to no end. Reminiscent of such classic down-and-out country-stars-gone-bad movies such as Payday with Rip Torn and Tender Mercies with Robert Duvall, the story follows the road trip and ensuing relationships Blake handles or mishandles along the way. He constantly argues with his agent by phone and lives under the burden that former sideman and protégé Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell) has eclipsed his fame. Jean (Maggie Gylenhall), a New Mexico journalist, shows up to interview Bad and finds genuine interest in this mess of a human being. Bad, still able to score groupies, discovers hope in the awkward interview with Jean and the tables begin to turn.
Crazy Heart wrings out the guts of the characters. Blake boozes, sweats and pukes his way through life accurately depicting alcoholic pain. The heartbreaking relationships between Blake and Jean, her son and Tommy are handled with extreme reverence. Every character holds up a mirror either to themselves or each other, sustaining agonizing results. This movie travels familiar territory, but the experience almost always turns out different than we expect. It's all a learning process about doing the right thing no matter how wrecked or painful.
Crazy Heart belongs to Bridges. He comes at us full force, and we sink deep into his booze-soaked psyche. Bridges has the ability to inhabit every character he plays from Rancho Deluxe to American Heart to the punk-outlaw in the overlooked western Bad Company and, of course, The Dude in The Big Lebowski. Creating finely tuned nuances and simplicities, he slides into Blake's been-there-done-that attitude with ease. Drunk and numb most of the time, Bad provides no huge temper tantrum, but his anger is there, seething underneath the fatigued skin. Like an endangered species, Bridges presents such a strong character in Bad Blake from the first frame that you have no choice but to believe.
Gylenhall nails every scene with authenticity and the age difference is not a problem. Chicks dig guys with guitars and old coots dig younger chicks - it's just physics. Duvall plays the wise, old codger bartender with that glint in his eye and wisdom to spew. Farrell is a surprise and does a fine job, but the whole time I kept thinking, "That's Colin Farrell."
Actor/director Scott Cooper displays all the right indie-flick touches, but where he shines is in the music. Written by music producer T-Bone Burnett and the late guitar player/songwriter Stephen Bruton, the cool and catchy songs have a feel of Waylon Jennings meets Tom Petty. Duvall even sings a song a cappella in a fishing boat.
Like The Wrestler, Crazy Heart blends the bleak and the uplifting in an agonizing, soul-searching attempt at a redemption that's always just over the horizon.
Starring Jeff Bridges, Maggie Gylenhall, Colin Farrell, Robert Duvall
Directed by Scott Cooper