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Oscar Flashback: Crazy Heart (2009)

Recommended for my viewing pleasure by my mother was Crazy Heart, for which Jeff Bridges won the Best Actor Oscar; and for which Ryan Bingham and T-Bone Burnett won the Best Original Song Oscar for "The Weary Kind" (film year, 2009; awarding year, 2010). The other nominees in these categories were:

Best Actor

Up in the Air - George Clooney *
A Single Man - Colin Firth
Invictus - Morgan Freeman
The Hurt Locker - Jeremy Renner

Best Original Song

The Princess and the Frog - "Almost There"
The Princess and the Frog - "Down in New Orleans"
Paris 36 - "Loine de Paname"
Nine - "Take It All" *

While spending time with the fam' over the holidays, I became aware that my mother unexpectedly (and somewhat surprisingly) purchased several recent films for her personal collection, not the least of which included Crazy Heart. For some reason, she took to this one like...peas and carrots, or peanut butter and jelly. If I had to guess, I would say that she has a small crush on Jeff Bridges, and why wouldn't she? He's ruggedly handsome and has played a diverse set of characters over the course of his lengthy and varied career. Along came Crazy Heart, the tale of a washed-up, alcoholic singer, however, and Bridges earned his first Golden Guy from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for playing the washed-up singer in question. Of the films she had added to her library, I chose to watch "It's Complicated" when we discussed watching a film together (aw), but I borrowed this one, since I became aware of its existence via my, some might say, illogical love of the Oscars.

In Crazy Heart, Otis "Bad" Blake (Bridges) was once a famous country music star, but he now makes his way touring the American Southwest, playing nostalgia shows in bars and bowling alleys. He's been married and divorced a few times and has an estranged adult son that never knew him. During a private binge before one of his gigs, Bad meets Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a divorcee with a young son named Buddy and a journalist looking for a big story for her small town rag. She interviews Bad with a mixture of country music aficionado and schoolgirl crush, and the two strike up a relationship, which allows Bad to feel something more than the numbness of intoxication and to hunger for getting his life back on track. He even consents to open for his one time partner, whom he mentored, and now superstar, Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), in the hopes that Tommy will record an album with him, but Tommy's producers won't allow it. Tommy asks that Bad, instead, write songs for him to record and for which Bad can be paid. Bad agrees, but his wounded pride and sense of hopelessness fuel his alcoholism, which rages out of control and jeopardizes not only his future and his life but his relationship with Jean and Buddy, the closest thing he has left to honest family.

Crazy Heart echoes of another film about a washed up country singer entitled "Tender Mercies," which starred Robert Duvall, and in no small part due to the fact that this film features the erstwhile Tom Hagen as a bartender and close friend of Bad's. Though it's been ages since I've seen "Mercies" and only vaguely remember it, I was immediately reminded of the film watching "Crazy Heart;" the rhythm of the story flows at the same clip, right down to the premise of the drunk country musician looking to reinvent his life now that his career has taken a turn for the worst to the point of hitting bottom. Some of the inherent story details may differ, but the atmosphere of each film, from tone to visual presence, resembles the timber of the other.

In fact, to that end, Crazy Heart sounds like quite a few movies with similar premises involving rock bottoms and reinventions. The story, including the romance with its mismatched lovers of Jean and Bad, feels somewhat trite and recycled. In viewing the film, the sense is that the screenwriter and director wanted to take some risks with the material but stopped short, such that the practice of attempting to actually identify those potentially risky boundaries almost becomes an exercise in futility. If it weren't for three particularly fine elements of the film, I might have been inclined to nap through it, as I was viewing it from a particularly comfy couch.

First, and it almost goes without saying, Jeff Bridges' performance as Bad Blake is the singular most important reason to watch this film. He is the film, frankly. Perhaps, one might find it reasonable to believe that Mr. Bridges could, in fact, pull off an alcoholic country boy, given some of his prior roles, and that's a fair cop, but what he achieves here is a sense of nuance that renders his performance so natural, so effortless, it's as if Bridges was wearing Bad like a second skin. Suspension of disbelief while watching him is so complete that the sense of "I'm watching that dude from Tron" is completely erased. While I haven't watched the entire Best Actor category from the 2009 Oscars, I would be hard pressed to argue that Bridges didn't deserve the statuette; he conveyed the emotional extremes of his character so convincingly organically, and he sang too.

This point segues into mention of the second fine component of this picture, the music and songs. The character of Bad was a dramatic caricature drawn from several real-life inspirations, including country music star Waylon Jennings, so it is only appropriate that songs reminiscent of such inspirations be composed for the film. I'm not a country music fan, but what was created for the film contributed as much to the film's ability to engage the viewer as Bridges' basic performance. Each song, including the Oscar winner, contained nuggets of life wisdom and melancholy typical for this musical genre but directly paralleled the story that unfolded on screen and, really, that's what film soundtracks ought to do.

Third, the film ended on a fine note - a hopeful note if not necessarily a happy note. To avoid spoilers, I will leave it at that, but the fact that director Harriet Walter and screenwriter Scott Cooper did not go for the easy and possible happy ending was satisfying. For the character of Bad Blake, easy and happy are not believably part of his idiom.

Still, while those elements saved the film for me personally, there were other components that left me thinking the film as a whole was something marginally above average at best. Maggie Gyllenhaal, though I like her quite a bit, basically recycled bits and affectations of her character from previous performances, not the least of which included her carefree, tax evading baker from "Stranger Than Fiction." It was fun to see Colin Farrell for his brief appearance in the film in such a low key, folksy role, but the reasons for Bad and Tommy's particular falling out are never fully flushed to the surface, especially when the opportunity for such explanation presented itself during an actual scene featuring a quiet conversation between the two characters concerning the possibility of recording the duet album. The inferred seed of their rift seems to be something akin to professional jealousy, with the mentored succeeding more than the mentor (and, perhaps, in light of Bad's fondness for whiskey), but this inference rang hollow. More story possibility - and possible risk - could have been taken with that relationship.

In fact, what's also never fully explained is what motivated Bad to drink in the first place. Certainly, his life was hard, and he made bad choices, but most of his back story was lost in the haze of his intoxication, which the filmmakers hammered home quite exceptionally. Perhaps, the filmmakers were attempting to relate a message of not living in the past while focusing on the future, and that picking up the pieces of a shattered life is a more valuable activity than actually considering what broke the shattered life to begin with, but then the whole conceit of introducing the Tommy character seems superfluous in the end.

The visual presentation of this film was pretty straightforward. The most creatively rendered technical element centered on the use of lighting to accentuate the dominant emotions of a given scene, such as when Jean and Bad are first "connecting," or when Bad stops for a drink with Buddy in tow and fails to keep a watchful eye on the boy, as Bad's world becomes a florescent haze of inebriation. There were additionally many interesting shots from above, as if the camera were but a fly on the wall, and the film was also, to director Walter's credit, evenly paced and filmed as organically as Bridges portrayed Bad Blake.

In the end, none of these perceived "flaws" are true pockmarks against the film itself, but without Jeff Bridges and the wonderful musical compositions accompanying the film's more run-of-the-mill elements, Crazy Heart might have been something else altogether. In fact, the only real reason to see this film is Jeff Bridges and his wonderful and deservedly Oscar-winning performance. As a result, in ratings land, Crazy Heart earns a 7.5 for being between shaky but entertaining and having minor flaws but being very good. The test does not pass, however. I get why my mother enjoyed the film; I cautiously did too, but I've seen this film before, simply without Bridges' particular and fantastic spin on what would otherwise be his cookie-cutter character.

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