Star power is a wonderful thing. It can save a movie from merely being a banal script, it can pull in audiences, and, in some cases, it can turn a direct-to-video release into a cinematic one. For Crazy Heart, star power does all three. Originally picked up by Paramount Vantage as a straight-to-DVD package, writer-director Scott Cooper’s film offers a candid glimpse of fictional country singer Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges), whose forty straight years of performing have taken their toll. Pushing away those who care about him in favour of alcohol and women, Blake embodies the wisdom earned through hard lessons – not necessarily adhered to – that characterises some of the best Country music, swaggering, and sometimes shambling, his way from one down and out venue to the next.
Cue the arrival of Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a journalist who quickly forms a personal connection with Blake and offers a last chance at redemption in the face of cancer and utter loneliness. What follows is the same story we have seen so many times; a man glutted on former success who, in his old age, attempts to right the wrongs of his life even when it already feels too late. Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler is still fresh in audience’s minds, and comparisons are bound to be drawn, yet across the market variations on this formula can currently be found. Crazy Heart then, needed to stand out. Yet it threatens to be crippled by a script that, at least until the film’s more respectable denouement, dumbly signposts every generic plot point well before its arrival (and the story doesn’t exactly come thick and fast). The emotional gut-punches on which this formula relies are, for the most part, avoided – Blake’s plight is treated with kid gloves, his personal nadir, and the movie’s climax, feeling far more at home in a Hallmark TV movie.
With a script that flounders, what saves this film is the considerable presence of Bridges and Gyllenhaal, both of whom shine. Bridge’s Bad Blake is played with a subtlety that lends believable nuance to the character’s alcoholic state; Bridge’s drunken lumbering bleeds easily into his sober, sombre moments, allowing fluidity in presentation that other actors playing drunk should take note of. Bridge’s idiosyncratic performance gives Blake character where the script holds back. Similarly, Gyllenhaal’s single mother visibly struggles with her opposing impulses between head and heart, offering a maturity previously unseen in her work. Together they are a watchable, believable couple whose tenderness toward one another, along with the soundtrack, carries this film.
T Bone Burnett returns to song writing here after O Brother Where Art Thou? and Walk the Line, and his ability to write memorable songs that not only complement, but often become their own characters in the film, continues. Blake’s prowess in songwriting is well conveyed through Burnett’s lyrics, whilst Bridge, a musician himself, does a deft job at singing along to the steel guitars. A cameo from Colin Farrell also adds some novelty, though like his character, it threatens to buckle under the weight of Bad Blake.
Crazy Heart has been getting a lot of hype, and, without Bridges and Gyllenhaal, it would be hard to see why. As it is, their emotional development (rushed instigation aside), is the major achievement in what should otherwise have been consigned with stealth to the DVD aisle. This isn’t a bad film at all, but it’s a far cry from what it’s being hailed as.