'Crazy Heart'

Jeff Bridges steals the show as a cowboy-style crooner who wrestles with his demons.

The rocky road of boozy nights, busted dreams and the hope of one more chance, traveled in so many country songs and movies, is good for yet another trip in “Crazy Heart.” Playing a drunken, washed-up music legend reduced to playing small-town bowling alleys, Jeff Bridges is the whole show here as a cowboy-style crooner who wrestles with his demons in ways that easily engage an audience’s sympathies. Having skipped the fall festival circuit in anticipation of a 2010 release, Fox Searchlight has quickly scrambled to slip the indie-style film into the year-end awards season hunt, a likely shrewd gamble that will help yield sweet midrange commercial results.

For those who have seen “Tender Mercies,” the 1983 picture that won Academy Awards for star Robert Duvall and screenwriter Horton Foote, this will seem like deja vu all over again, not only due to the story trajectory of a broken-down country singer tended to by a youthful woman and her young son, but also the presence of Duvall here as a producer and supporting actor. That said, just as many country songs recycle the same scenarios and sentiments time and again, there’s nothing wrong with a variation on a popular favorite, and Bridges (himself an exec producer on the project), writer-director Scott Cooper and company put a strong enough stamp on the familiar material to make it their own,

When seen at the outset bellying up to the bar in said bowling alley with his bushy gray beard, and hauling his corpulent frame around on legs that seem on the verge of collapsing under the strain, Bridges’ Bad Blake momentarily triggers the image of an errant older brother of the actor’s Dude in “The Big Lebowski.” Near the end of his rope physically and financially at 57, Blake proudly proclaims he’s never missed a gig no matter how wasted he may be, but on this occasion, he to races out the back door during the middle of a song to retch into a garbage can, only to return to carry on.

“I used to be somebody, but now I’m somebody else,” Blake croaks in one of his standards, and he’s definitely a man with a past, even if it’s one that hews closely to generic norms. Living down to the Merle Haggard tradition, he’s had several wives and innumerable women, a son he hasn’t seen the kid was 4, and a relationship with a younger protege, current country sensation Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell) that is the one subject he declines to speak about when interviewed by warm Santa Fe feature writer Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal).

Heartened by the young lady’s sympathetic interest, Blake volunteers for a more in-depth interview, providing her with details of an especially intimate sort during a late-night session in his hotel bedroom. But the next morning, Blake’s off for Phoenix, where his irascible manager (James Keane) has booked him into the humiliating but financially worthwhile slot of opening an arena concert for none other than Sweet.

Plotwise, there’s again nothing particularly surprising about subsequent developments; more smitten with Jean than he might have imagined, Blake tries to build the relationship, but he soon hits a do-or-die juncture on several fronts simultaneously: Medically, he’s got to shape up or ship out; creatively and financially, he must start writing new songs again; personally, he feels driven to contact his long-lost son; and romantically, he needs to prove himself to Jean. As in a good country song, with the bitter comes the sweet.

Adapting a novel by Thomas Cobb, debuting director Cooper roots the tale in a recognizably real contempo Southwest that’s a notch or two more modern and sophisticated than the rural rube environs depicted in such films a generation ago; the people here aren’t so much attached to country-cowboy ways by birthright as by cultivated affection, and Sweet is an entirely up-to-date, on-top-of-it showbiz figure unlikely to wind up like his mentor.

The roughly 30-year age difference and Jean’s earnest devotion to making a post-divorce go of it with her son raise some questions as to her quick willingness to get involved with a bibulous old ne’er-do-well. But Gyllenhaal makes it clear that Jean takes the plunge with Blake of her own accord with her eyes wide open (the actress’ eyes have never seemed so brilliantly blue) due to needs of her own and, secondarily, those of her male-bereft son, enabling the relationship to play

It takes a moment or two to adjust to Farrell portraying a C&W sensation, but he quickly convinces by playing against the expectations that the character dropped Blake when he no longer needed him, instead emphasizing the abiding affection the younger man has for the older one.

But all others are mere planets revolving around Bridges’ sun, and everything this seasoned pro does implicitly rings entirely, beautifully true — the self-awareness of his own sorry state, the disgust with his slovenliness, the inner core of pride hidden behind the fat and dirt and sloth, the drive that still pushes him to journey hundreds of miles a day to play a gig or see Jean, and the kid-like enthusiasm sparked by the prospect of a new relationship and fresh start. Ever-youthful in his looks and energy, Bridges now stands as one of Hollywood’s great old pros, incapable of making a false move.

Like a relaxed country tune, Cooper’s direction is amiable but a tad leisurely; the tyro helmer puts the story and character values across, but a little more snap wouldn’t have hurt. The New Mexico-shot feature looks fine, and real-life concert settings bring a convincing feel to the performance scenes, as do the solid vocals by Bridges and Farrell.

Crazy Heart

Production

A Fox Searchlight release of an Informant Media/Butcher's Run Films production. Produced by Robert Duvall, Rob Carliner, Judy Cairo, T Bone Burnett. Executive producers, Jeff Bridges, Michael A. Simpson, Eric Brenner, Leslie Belzberg. Directed, written by Scott Cooper, based on the novel by Thomas Cobb.

Crew

Camera (FotoKem color, Panavision widescreen), Barry Markowitz; editor, John Axelrad; music, Stephen Bruton, T Bone Burnett; production designer, Waldemar Kalinowski; art director, Ben Zeller; set decorator, Carla Curry; costume designer, Doug Hall; sound (Dolby Digital), Bayard Carey; supervising sound editors and designers, Andrew DeCristofaro, Paula Fairfield; re-recording mixers, Joe Barnett, Rick Kline Mathew Waters; line producer, Alton Walpole; associate producer, Gina Scheerer; assistant director, Kaaren Ochoa; casting, Mary Vernieu, Lindsay Graham; New Mexico casting, Jo Edna Boldin. Reviewed at 20th Century Fox Studios, Los Angeles, Nov. 27, 2009. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 112 MIN.

With

Bad Blake - Jeff Bridges Jean Craddock - Maggie Gyllenhaal Wayne - Robert Duvall Bill Wilson - Tom Bower Tommy Sweet - Colin Farrell Manager - James Keane Doctor - William Marquez Tony - Ryan Bingham Jack Greene - Paul Herman Wesley Barnes - Rick Dial Buddy - Jack Nation

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