Song for a raggy man

Jeff Bridges’s hu­man­ity makes some­thing real out of melo­drama, writes Don­ald Clarke

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Film Reviews -

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.

Jeff Bridges and Kris Kristof­fer­son – sep­a­rated at birth?

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