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.