Reviewed by Don Speziale
In his famous weekend seminars, screenwriting guru Robert McKee loves to describe the plot of a film detailing the turbulent life of a country singer – his ups and downs, failed marriages and personal tragedies. When he’s finished spinning his tale, you sit there breathless, thinking, “What an amazing movie!”
It’s only then that McKee reveals he has told you the backstory plot that leads up to the opening frames of “Tender Mercies,” one of the great “down and out country singer” movies of all time. McKee’s point is a great one. Movies don’t always have to start at “Fade In.” What’s come before can be just as important as what’s unfolding in front of you.
In this tradition (and owing a bit more that a nod or two to “Tender Mercies”), Writer/Director Scott Cooper fills his debut feature, “Crazy Heart,” with a whole passel of backstory to the saga of Bad Blake, a washed-up country singer with an alcohol problem, who is about to hit his personal bottom. Once a big star, he’s now reduced to playing bowling alley bars, bringing back-up bands up to speed, hooking up with the local ladies and barely making enough to keep himself well-stocked in his favorite expensive bourbon.
When Blake meets up with an aspiring reporter and single mom (Maggie Gyllenhaal), he is smitten. Their attraction is evident and they tentatively begin a relationship.
A character study in the best sense, “Crazy Heart” works well as a quiet, involving drama of a man striving to find his way back to the artist he once was. Cooper sure got lucky with Jeff Bridges as Bad Blake. His authentically lived-in performance is the chief reason for seeing this. You can see Blake’s whole life in his eyes and physicality. This is a fully-formed man you’re watching, and Bridges really disappears into the role. He’s also a very capable singer, and is aided by some great tunes that only add to the authenticity of this world.
Maggie Gyllenhaal is also wonderful, conveying vulnerability and tentativeness as she embarks on a relationship she knows can only mean bad news. In another nod to “Tender Mercies,” Robert Duvall (who starred in that earlier film and is one of the producers of this one) appears as Blake’s best friend in a small, but affecting role. An overly-mannered performance by Colin Farrell (as Blake’s younger protégé) sometimes threatens to throw a wrench in the proceedings, but his role is thankfully small.
It’s unfortunate, then, that the film, at times, veers into some slightly unoriginal territory. Let’s face it, there’s only so much you can do with a plot like this, and Cooper doesn’t even seem to try to bring a fresh spin to it. And maybe that’s the point. Like a good old country tune, sometimes it’s enough to play it simple, as long as the emotion is there.
CRAZY HEART; Dir/Scr: Scott Cooper; Stars: Jeff Bridges, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Colin Farrell. Rated R.