There are few films as modest as Scott Cooper’s Crazy Heart. It’s so afraid of seeming over the top and inauthentic that it completely retreats from anything resembling a conflict. Instead of being a fist pounding underdog story (a’la Rocky) or a devastating document of descent (a’la The Wrestler), writer/director Cooper takes his aim right down the middle of the road. Throughout the course of Crazy Heart, country singer Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges) traverses the short-distance between mild failure to relative success. Ironically, so does the film.
Now, modesty in storytelling isn’t a flaw in and of itself. There’s something to be said about intimate, subtle films like this. However, there are absolutely no stakes in this tale. It tries to convince the audience that it is the story of a hard-living musician, desperately clinging to the only life he knows. Doctors warn Bad Blake that he needs to cut down on his smoking or drinking, otherwise he might develop emphysema or cancer. Might develop. Dun dun dun!
Of course, such a revelation comes later in the film. When we first meet Bad Blake, he is driving across America, playing small-town bars and the occasional bowling alley. Once a county music powerhouse, he has since slipped out of the limelight and into a drunken haze of obscurity. A young music journalist named Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal) wishes to do a story on the fallen star, but they’re in bed together before she can uncover any real insights. Inspired by Jean and her young son, Blake tries to get his career back on track, and he accepts an offer from his former protégé (and current superstar) Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell) to write him some songs.
And aside from a couple of predictable conflicts, that’s about it. At no point did I buy the relationship between Blake and Jean. Bridges and Gyllenhaal are both fine actors, but neither can overcome the machinations of their seemingly unmotivated romance. Why does she fall in love with him? She doesn’t care about country music, and he’s hardly charming when they first start dating. Is it just because he shared a doobie with her? I appreciate that Cooper wants to avoid any typical clichés (such as the old ‘she falls in love with him because she grew up listening to her daddy’s Bad Blake records blah blah blah’), but no motivation isn’t automatically better than a contrived one.
Also, why do Blake and Jean have to fall in love? Wouldn’t it be more interesting if Blake begins to understand himself better after a series of interviews with this intelligent, challenging woman? Wouldn’t the screenplay sizzle if the two of them played off of one another more? They could flirt beneath the veneer of their task, yet still remain fully aware that their careers are dependent on the success of the article. I hate to sound like a Bob McKee ‘Story’ seminar, but Cooper plays this story so low-key, you can barely hear the character growth.
Jeff Bridges is undeniably great as Bad Blake. However, because of Cooper’s ultra-restrained hand, Bridges isn’t given many opportunities to shine. That is, until he gets on stage and begins performing Blake’s heartbroken blues. This feels like music written by a truly complex character; one that does not exist in the film’s script (the music was actually penned by T-Bone Burnett, Ryan Bingham and the late Stephen Bruton). Bridges deserves all the acclaim he is receiving for making Blake more interesting than he has any right to be. Gyllenhaal works hard, but not even she can make Jean an appealing character. Robert Duvall is also a lot of fun as Blake’s local barkeep, and the film is always more interesting when Farrell is on screen.
Crazy Heart is based on Thomas Cobb’s 1987 novel of the same name. Now, I’m not sure how faithful the film is to the source material, and whether the lack of conflict and general lethargy is a reflection of the book. However, the picture could have used, if not a shot of adrenaline, a shot of tequila. It is by no means a bad film, and occasionally even flirts with being great. The picture looks phenomenal, thanks to the work by DP Barry Markowitz. For the most part however, the film seems to go out of its way to be underwhelming. Cooper is so afraid of being bold and baring some soul, he achieves little more than the anachronistic, cookie-cutter blues that his lead character spent a lifetime trying to avoid.