Song for a raggy man
Jeff Bridges’s humanity makes something real out of melodrama, writes Donald Clarke
JEFF BRIDGES plays a washed-up country singer. That seven-word synopsis tells you almost all you need to know about the plot of Crazy Heart.
Already caricatured as The Wrestler with slide guitars, the film follows the hero as, ruined by booze and estranged from his family, he makes one last attempt at a redemptive comeback. Along the way, he hooks up with a younger woman and has at least one (literally) sobering conversation with a finger-wagging doctor.
So, it’s a familiar scenario. A cameo from the indomitable Robert Duvall (one of the film’s producers) reminds us that the tale was told 30 years ago in Bruce Beresford’s Tender Mercies. Yet there is no doubt that Crazy Heart packs a punch.
It’s become a cliché to state that Jeff Bridges is the kind of actor who makes the job look easy. That is, however, no small compliment. Never at home to histrionics or vocal contortions, the veteran favours the scrunched eyes and the growling exhalations of the great cowboy actors.
It’s a quintessentially American style, ideally suited to this quintessentially American story. Indeed, it’s hard to think of any other actor (Clint’s a bit too old now) who could make the thing fly. No wonder Bridges is such a strong favourite for the best actor Oscar. (T-Bone Burnett, another nominee, also deserves recognition for writing songs that genuinely sound like they could once have been hits.)
In Crazy Heart, Bridges plays a weary outlaw singer named Bad Blake. When we first meet him, he is in such poor condition that he has to leave the stage mid-tune to vomit into a dustbin. A second (or third or fifth) chance arrives when a younger protege (Colin Farrell), now hugely popular, offers him the opportunity of a support slot at a stadium gig. About the same time, an aspiring, queasily young journalist (Maggie Gyllenhaal) makes his acquaintance.
The Wrestler did, indeed, play to the same beats, but, shot in a grungy naturalistic style, it stayed true to its bleak, despairing ethos. Crazy Heart is a much easier watch. Farrell’s character turns out to be a perfectly nice bloke. Bad’s character-defining act of drunken irresponsibility is a relatively minor matter. His ultimate fate may be in doubt throughout, but Crazy Heart – unlike The Wrestler – always allows the possibility of an Oprahfriendly redemptive reversal.
So, yes, the film has the gruff timbre of a Johnny Cash tune. It also, however, reveals the soft heart of a Dolly Parton number. Still, one can imagine worse combinations.
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