Sunday, January 31, 2010

Falling and Flying: Crazy Heart

Great performances can cut to the heart. Great songs can, too. To say that Crazy Heart has both might be a bit of a stretch, but Scott Cooper’s film certainly has great performances of songs, and that’s quite a lot. Starring Jeff Bridges as Bad Blake, a country music has-been who has traded record deals and concert halls for the bar-and-bowling-alley circuit, Crazy Heart is a modest yet affecting film that’s never more moving than when in song. That Bridges, who performs the tunes in a husky, booze-soaked voice, will be nominated for an Academy Award on Tuesday goes without saying. When it comes to the acting categories, Oscar loves young up-and-comers, respected veterans who haven’t gotten their due, portrayals of mental or physical ailment, actors who sing, actors who use accents and actors who put on or take off weight for a role. As Bad Blake, Bridges is 4.5 out of 6. To call his performance “Oscar bait” would be unfair. Then again, if Oscar voters were sharks, Bridges would be swimming in the chum.

I point that out because it’s easy to become so distracted by Bridges’ ability to perform his own vocal stunts that we cease to see anything more, thus reducing the film to a talent show. Bridges’ near-great turn in Crazy Heart isn’t such because of the quality of his singing but because of the way he performs – when his character is on stage and off. Similarly, Crazy Heart isn’t among the best pictures of 2009 simply because it provides a good concert. Like a standard musical, the film uses Bad Blake’s songs and lyrics to evoke the emotions of the man behind them, but that’s only half the story. Also for your consideration is the way Bad ogles a bottle of alcohol that he knows he can’t afford, the way he oozes so much charm that women see the sexy romantic inside instead of the mangy and overweight exterior, the way he softens around Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Jean Craddock and her son, the way he unpacks himself from his Chevy after a long drive and the way he awkwardly but determinedly limps around on a broken leg. Oh, that limp! It’s a perfect metaphor for the way Bad’s ailments – particularly alcoholism – hold him back from the life he wants to lead, despite his best attempts to ignore the problem.

It’s these subtleties in Bridges’ performance that give Crazy Heart its allure. Beyond that, the film has an unfortunate tendency to settle for formula. The problem isn’t just that Crazy Heart is yet another movie about a boozing musician, or that the film’s rough outline, based on a novel by Thomas Cobb, so closely resembles 2008’s The Wrestler. The problem is that even within its own world Crazy Heart has a tendency to recycle. Particularly in the early going, Cooper’s film repeatedly shows Bad driving his Chevy through the Southwest, singing in less than distinguished venues and lounging around in a drunken state. This is Bad’s life, of course. This is his routine. But that doesn’t mean that Cooper needed to be so mechanical about his presentations. In the The Wrestler, Darren Aronofsky found ways to evoke the sameness of Randy’s existence without basic repetition. Earlier I argued that we shouldn’t evaluate Bridges’ performance as a mere talent show, but sometimes that’s about all that Cooper allows. And when I say that Bridges’ performance is just near-great, it’s because Crazy Heart doesn’t give it the gravity or complexity to be more. Bad Blake’s lyrics make for poetic statements about the artist (“sometimes falling feels like flying, for a little while”), but there’s no moment off stage that’s quite so poignant, no scene like the one in The Wrestler when Randy looks around the room at an autograph session and sees a wheelchair, a cane and a colostomy bag and knows that his decrepitude can only get worse.

For all the broad ways in which Crazy Heart and The Wrestler are similar – each film is about an aging performer with self-destructive habits who gets into a romance with a wary single mom while hoping for reconciliation with his own estranged child – they are remarkably different films in one fundamental way. Crazy Heart is about a man destroying himself with alcohol. The Wrestler is about a man destroying himself with the thing he loves: his wrestling career and all that goes with it. As Crazy Heart itself reinforces, Bad Blake’s drinking isn’t intrinsic to his music career’s success, it’s the thing bringing him down. It’s expendable. In contrast, The Wrestler’s Randy cannot be The Ram and give up being The Ram at the same time. These heightened stakes – one man staying alive because of his career, the other man killing himself with it – are what make The Wrestler and Mickey Rourke’s performance within it so much more powerful than what Crazy Heart and Bridges can hope to achieve without making Bad Blake’s addiction, rather than his failing career, the plot’s core conflict. On that note, sadly Crazy Heart gives alcoholism the once-over, treating it as a lifestyle choice rather than a disease. Cooper has no intentions of making Bad into a genuine monster. Instead, Bad wears his addiction like it’s part of his good ol’ boy costume. His addiction is a lazy subplot at best. Need proof? After spending the majority of the film suggesting that alcohol is the root of Bad’s ills, the film resolves his addiction – cures it, even – in about 5 minutes. Like Dorothy’s return to Kansas, all needs to do is say the words.

These are the reasons to be disappointed by what Crazy Heart is while thinking about what it might have been. But even though the film bungles some big moments, or avoids them entirely, it nails the execution of several smaller ones. Bad’s relationship with Colin Farrell’s Tommy Sweet, his old protégé and now one of country music’s biggest stars, is full of tantalizing ambiguity. In Bad we detect jealousy, resentment, respect and even fondness. In Tommy we detect embarrassment, guilt, respect and a resentful son’s pride. The two have a lovely scene together that starts in a diner and spills out into the parking lot, but the film’s best scene comes when Tommy joins Bad on stage for an unrehearsed and unplanned duet that’s pregnant with suspicion. Is Tommy endorsing Bad or his he upstaging him? Is it a gesture of gratitude or a show of strength? Even Bad seems unsure. Study Bridges’ face in that scene. He wears an expression that suggests Bad is personally pissed off and professionally grateful. Little moments like that one lift Crazy Heart beyond its uninspired design. The film could have been truly great if Cooper had been willing to address Bad Blake’s addiction wearing cowboy boots rather than dancing around the ugliness in ballet slippers, but to that end at least he cast the right man for his lead. As Bad Blake, Bridges is nothing short of graceful.


Steven Santos said...

I saw "Crazy Heart" a month ago and was never quite inspired to write about it, though your piece perfectly gets at what works and what doesn't about the film.

As good as Bridges was, there was just too much familiarity with this storyline, which feels like a mash-up of "Tender Mercies" and "The Wrestler". Plus, it did anger me a bit to have his alcoholism be the big problem in his life, only for him to instantly cure it with only one trip to rehab!

It seemed rather simplistic. Rather than getting at deeper what drives this guy rather, they portray him as yet another musician drowning in booze that we've seen in countless biopics or fictional stories about artists. And the scenes between Bridges and Farrell seem to threaten to explore a relationship we don't usually see in this kind of movie, but the film seems to be more about being a tribute to Jeff Bridges as an actor rather than pushing his performance to genuine greatness through something a bit more challenging.

Hokahey said...

Coincidentally, I saw this movie today. You argue persuasively and in detail how this movie is, and I totally agree, a modest yet affecting film that’s never more moving than when in song.

If I had gone home and written about Crazy Heart, I don't think I could have come up with more than a paragraph in which I would have said that, yes, Bridges is affecting - after a weak start, I think, in which he seems to just drive, drink, and throw up. But I also would have said that the movie would be much less than affecting without the performances of Gyllennhaal and Farrell.

Actually, I almost feel that Gyllennhaal saves the film - especially when it wanders into formula. You just know the outing to the mall is going to end up in disaster. And I'm with you on the total fantasy of Bad's recovery. All it takes is that detox retreat and a babbling brook.

So, your analysis is thorough and very fair - perhaps too fair. Bridges was good - not great - because the film's formulaic simplicity seems to thwart him from being as touching as Rourke was in The Wrestler. And Rourke didn't win the Best Actor Oscar!

Sam Juliano said...

This is an excellent analysis, nd one I will be honored to feature on the Monday Morning blogosphere round-up at my site. CRAZY HEART is indeed a strong film with that excellent lead performance (which is undoubtably headed for an Oscar) and the infectious score, but everything in this film is too pat,tidy and formulaic, and when you say this, you really do nail it, methinks:

"I point that out because it’s easy to become so distracted by Bridges’ ability to perform his own vocal stunts that we cease to see anything more, thus reducing the film to a talent show.

Subsequently, and in accord with this observation, when you say that the performance is "near-great" you are dead on as far as I'm concerned. This plays to Bridges' excesses, and as a result we don't get anything deeper than what he envision this kind of character in this kind of social be.

Bridges has had an illustrious career, and I dare say I beliece his debut performance still rings truer than anything he's done since (THE LAST PICTURE SHOW)

As usual The Cooler takes the discussion far beneath the surface!

Jason Bellamy said...

Thanks a lot, fellas. A few specific replies ... (some light spoilers ahead)

Steven: Plus, it did anger me a bit to have his alcoholism be the big problem in his life, only for him to instantly cure it with only one trip to rehab!

When Bad Blake walks out of rehab and Duvall's character says they'll take it one day at a time and Bad says he thinks he's "cured" (I think that's the word he uses), I assumed that was foreshadowing an upcoming relapse, as addicts who think they're "cured" (or can be) rarely make progress. Instead, nope, it appears Bad really was cured. This offends me somewhat just in terms of accuracy and sensitivity, but mostly it bothers me because it's a major dramatic letdown.

Hokahey: Interesting about Gyllenhaal. I didn't think that she saved the movie, but she certainly didn't hurt it. As for Bridges, I think he does about all anyone could with this role (and its presentation within the film). I think his performance here is perhaps being overhyped (shocker, I know), but I was genuinely impressed by it.

Sam: Thanks so much. Honored to be included in your Monday collection.

...everything in this film is too pat, tidy and formulaic...

Yeah. The film adheres so much to formula that even the fact that the lyrics spotlight the inner Bad Blake seems almost trite, though if I criticize Crazy Heart for that I'd have to criticize suggestive dancing in musicals. Point being, Crazy Heart never really unsettles us, if you know what I mean.

As for Bridges' career: I like a lot of his performances (Fearless and Big Lebowski jump to mind) but I'd second your praise for Last Picture Show.

Daniel Getahun said...

Nailed another one, wow. Amazing insights on:

1. Movie as concert
2. Diff between Ram and Bad
3. The duet scene

I was contemplating the last one in my "best scenes of 2009" and in hindsight I should have made room for it.

Overall I got a little bit more from Bridge's off-stage performance than you did, but danged if I can't argue with anything you say here. On the other hand, I'd have to disagree with Hokahey about Gyllenhaal, because I found that relationship as unbelievable as Bad's cured alcoholism.

Hokahey said...

Daniel - I also found her sudden leap into Bad's arms to be unbelievable. I couldn't understand what she saw in him. But I thought her part was well acted.

Rev. John Considine said...

The alcoholism "cure" was no such thing. The point was not to show the details of Bad's recovery; and it was not even suggested by anyone of authority that he was "cured" (the alcoholic himself is not to be trusted here). Many many alcoholics make it 16 months before they have their slip. Where I would watch for the slip is in the post-production of the movie, after she shows him the ring and he has some time to think that one over. True, they did not show the daily recovery needs of an alcoholic, but to what point would that be? It would actually be off point. I would agree with you if, in fact, they had fallen back in the sack then walked happily into the sunset. That would definitely send the message that he was cured. But that didn't happen.

Jason Bellamy said...

Thanks for weighing in. I'm not demanding that the movie needed to detail his daily struggle of recovery. But the fact is that the film does nothing to even suggest that he might relapse. Sure, maybe that's what would happen in the sequel. But considering all the attention the film gave his addiction to that point, it seems indeed this his triumph over alcoholism is being celebrated. By having Bad say, "I'm cured," or whatever his words were, and offering nothing to suggest he's wrong, the film is taking the addict's word for it. And many people who haven't seen addiction up close believe it's that simple.

As for this ...

I would agree with you if, in fact, they had fallen back in the sack then walked happily into the sunset. That would definitely send the message that he was cured.

I agree, that would have been worse. But I think you're splitting hairs a bit. Ignore the relationship that on many levels seemed implausible to begin with. The other arc is one of a man losing his career, in large part because of his addiction. By the end of the movie, Bad's career is revitalized, not as a headliner, but enough that he can hold his head up high and not play bowling alleys anymore.

I see where you're coming from, but the bottom line is that the movie handles his addiction with kid gloves.

doyler29 said...

I feel I should point out that you seemed to have decided that he's an alcoholic. Not everyone who drinks all the time is. People drink too much for all sorts of reasons, only one of which is alcoholism.

Jason Bellamy said...

True. Although I thought the movie was certainly trying to get that point across when it shows him having withdrawal-type symptoms and when he goes to alcohol abuse treatment. There are many people who wind up at inpatient addiction programs who don't think they have a problem. But I suspect few of them are right. Bad would have to be the great exception to the rule. But, sure, it's possible.

Israel León said...

I think your comparison between Crazy Heart and Te Wrestler is phenomenal.
This movie is definitely to much formula, so the story is not appealing at all.
The only thing good about it, is the music.

P.S. Maggie Gyllenhaal...please stop trying to be an actress!

Anonymous said...

Saw it today. Am impressed with the great insights posted here.
Surprised no one mentioned the tragic casting of Collin Ferrell as Tommy Sweet.
I loved the duet scene, and think TSweet was an awesome role to play, but I could not get past Collin

Anonymous said...

Oh shoot, make that Colin Farrel, sorry

Jason Bellamy said...

I'm behind on replying to comments, but glad to see them still rolling in.

Anon: It's funny ... I didn't know Farrell was in the movie, so I did have an "Is that who I think it is?" moment. Once I realized it was Farrell, my next thought was: "Wow, some people are going to hate this."

That said, I think the casting is inspired. Doesn't Farrell look exactly like the kind of country music celebrity who would pack arenas today? He's the kind of guy who is so visually perfect that people endlessly debate whether he has any real talent or not. I thought it was terrific casting, and the scenes between Farrell and Bridges are some of the film's best.

But I say all of that feeling not surprised in the least that some will think Farrell sticks out like a sore thumb.

varun said...

I agree with most of the comments here.

I think the mistake of Bridges was not big enough(and related to alcohol) for Gyllenhaal to take that decision. I mean you loose a small kid even if you are an alcoholic.

varun said...

*you can loose a small kid even if you are not an alcoholic