Honky-tonk true

Jeff Bridges shines in Crazy Heart

Crazy Heart
Tinseltown. Rated R.
Rated 4.0

“Bad” Blake, the furiously fading country-western singer played by Jeff Bridges, insists his given first name won’t be made public until he’s dead. He eventually breaks his promise on that, which is good news in this movie’s scheme of things, but not so good that it lets Blake or the movie become very, very bad and therefore really very good.

This small, amiably grungy indie flick, now with its Oscar-nominated performances (Bridges and Maggie Gyllenhaal), reportedly almost went straight to video. And its somewhat hesitant mixture of sad love story and cautionary tale does at times smack of feel-good redemptive drama in the made-for-TV mode.

But a very good cast and a bristlingly unsentimental sense of the honky-tonk blues make Crazy Heart a worthy and honorable entry in a small but lively sub-genre, the sweet and salty country-western backstage soap opera—illustrious predecessors include Payday (1972) with Rip Torn, Tender Mercies (1983) with Robert Duvall and Songwriter (1984) with Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson.

Duvall’s sage presence in a supporting role, and as one of the film’s producers, underlines this new picture’s kinship with the classic Tender Mercies in particular. Duvall simply checks in as sidekick/confidant/father figure to Blake here and serves chiefly as a very resonant marker of iconic values.

Bridges is a raggedly leonine force in the central role, perfectly convincing with both the over-the-hill wild-man side of Blake and the grizzled alcoholic staggering half-blindly toward some kind of saving grace. Colin Farrell delivers a compact, nicely understated performance as a younger singer whose newfound success has not softened his deep and uneasy sense of indebtedness, musically and professionally, to Blake.

The linchpin character in all this is the journalist and single mom Jean (Gyllenhaal), with whom Blake finds some fitfully intense romance. Gyllenhaal is excellent in evoking the variously conflicted emotions that prove essential to a story whose most dramatic illuminations arise from falling out of love even more than from falling in.