Miles of bad road
Jeff Bridges won a Golden Globe recently for his performance in Scott Cooper’s Crazy Heart, intensifying Bridges’ Oscar buzz. I wonder, though, if Bridges will ever take home the little gold man, despite all the nominations he’s had. His problem is that to win awards, you can’t let an audience (or Academy voters) forget how hard you’re working at your craft; Bridges, however, never seems to be acting. Whether he’s playing an adolescent Texas rube (The Last Picture Show, 1971), a man from outer space (Starman, 1984) or the president of the United States (The Contender, 2000), he always seems to be simply and exactly that, and to have somehow wandered fortuitously into the range of a movie camera. So it is in Crazy Heart.
Bridges plays “Bad” Blake, a country singer-songwriter whose stellar career has hit the skids, the kind of entertainer politely called a “legend” when he’s really a has-been. Others have eclipsed him, including his former protégé Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell, in an incisively understated cameo). Bad himself has descended to dispiriting one-night stands in seedy dives and bowling alleys in desiccated one-horse towns. He’s 57 going on 75, battered by too many marriages, too many cigarettes, too much cheap whiskey and too many wake-ups in a cheap motel with some nameless, aging bar belle snoring beside him. Bad Blake is the kind of guy Kris Kristofferson might have been with a more self-destructive life, or Hank Williams, if he had lived long enough to be washed up.
This is where (and what) Bad is when he meets Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a newspaper writer in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She shows up to interview him and finds him as puddled and disorderly as his career. But Craddock sees the glowing embers of the man under the boozy crust, while Bad sees in her and her 4-year-old son, Buddy (Jack Nation), a chance for the life he might have had with another woman, and the son he deserted when the boy was just Buddy’s age.
If director Cooper’s film (written by Cooper, adapting Thomas Cobb’s novel) has a shortcoming, it is that it is uncomfortably derivative of the Bruce Beresford-Horton Foote Tender Mercies (1983), the movie that finally won a long-deferred Oscar for Robert Duvall. (It’s surely no coincidence that Duvall himself served here as a producer, and plays another cameo as Bad’s bartender pal.) But where Tender Mercies was elegiac, Crazy Heart is funereal; the earlier film was about redemption through love, while this one is about redemption after a love lost, that one-too-many morning that really does lead to turning over a new leaf.
It’s a tricky balancing act. We have to see Bad Blake scraping bottom, yet believe that the top of the hole is still within his reach. When he takes Buddy into a bar and the boy wanders away while Bad wallows in his drink, we have to see the mistake Bad’s making while hoping it won’t all end too badly. Watching Crazy Heart, I was reminded of another redemption movie, The Verdict (1982), in which Paul Newman was so dead-on perfect as the ruined alcoholic lawyer that his comeback simply wasn’t credible. But Cooper—directing his first movie and writing his second, after a decade as a journeyman actor—doesn’t overplay his hand. He gives us the unrelenting atmosphere—we can almost taste the sour booze and smell the stale smoke—but never loses that fading glimmer of hope.
And under his guidance, Bridges and Gyllenhaal don’t overplay it either; if the script doesn’t quite explain why Jean is drawn to Bad, Gyllenhaal fills in the gap for us, showing the (yes) tender mercy that makes Jean want to give this old reprobate a chance.
On second thought, it might not be wise to bet against Bridges for that Oscar after all; the role that turned the trick for Duvall might just do it for him, too. In 1971, if the award had really gone to the best supporting actor, Bridges would have won. Instead, the Academy honored Ben Johnson for the same movie, and for his long career of decent, honorable work. They just might do it again for Bridges. Both his career, and this particular performance, have earned it.