Born to be Bad: Jeff Bridges lets it all hang out as a faded country star in ‘Crazy Heart’
You’ve seen “Crazy Heart’’ before - many, many times, actually - but it doesn’t much matter. Country and western music feeds on that sense of rueful, willful repetition, the knowledge that sins of the past will be sinned in the future, even as the singer is lamenting those sins in the present.
That’s where the humor and the dead-eyed fatalism of country both come from, and that’s what fuels Jeff Bridges’s shambling yet masterful performance as Bad Blake, faded C&W star and sorry-ass reprobate. When Scott Cooper’s film opens, Bad is 57 and has sunk to appearing at a New Mexico bowling alley, where the patrons cheer him on as a souvenir of their own outlaw youth. He gets halfway through his best-known hit, rushes out back to throw up, then returns to finish the song. In country music terms, that means he’s a pro.
The chorus of that song goes “It’s funny how falling feels like flying for a little while,’’ and “Crazy Heart’’ is about Bad learning the hard way to appreciate the difference. The film could be mistaken at first glance for this year’s “The Wrestler,’’ but it has deeper taproots in American music and American film. Through the holes in Bad Blake’s soul, you can see Rip Torn in 1973’s “Payday’’ and Andy Griffith in 1957’s “A Face in the Crowd.’’ Even Robert Duvall turns up in a few scenes, as if he had decided to stroll over from 1983’s “Tender Mercies’’ with some much-needed advice.
The movie’s based on a 1987 novel by Thomas Cobb and samples both the mythos of Hank Williams and those who’ve tried to live down to his example. (At one point, Waylon Jennings’s “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?’’ mocks Bad from the soundtrack.) Since every country song needs its honky-tonk angel, “Crazy Heart’’ also brings on Maggie Gyllenhaal as Jean, a small-town reporter and single mom with a weakness for sexy screw-ups. That Jean would allow herself to fall for the paunchy, sozzled Bad - Bridges really is a wreck here - is the movie’s biggest stretch, yet the scenes between the two are also its most touchingly erotic. Jean is damaged but still able to shine in the dimming glow of her new lover’s star wattage; in her tenderness, Bad sees reprieve.
“Crazy Heart’’ also looks knowingly at the music industry from the periphery. Bad gets periodic phone calls from his agent (Paul Herman in a stock role), begging him to get off the sauce and start writing songs again, but his biggest stumbling block remains Tommy Sweet, a one-time sideman who has become a New Country superstar. We hear a lot about Tommy - most of it sour grapes - and when he finally arrives in the person of a surprisingly convincing Colin Farrell, he’s much more sympathetic than his mentor cares to admit.
Among other things, “Crazy Heart’’ shows how the kid’s mass following lacks the bone-deep connection Bad has with his audience. Tommy just sings about his listeners’ troubles. Bad lives them, and the movie views that bond - and the fans themselves - with the deepest respect.
The music is terrific, as it should be in a movie where T Bone Burnett wrote the songs with Stephen Bruton, himself a musician’s musician who died of cancer two weeks after finishing the collaboration. Bridges sings the lyrics with a bit of the old high-and-lonesome and a lot of boozy defiance; he gets deep inside the blissful hopelessness of a line like “You never see it coming till it’s gone.’’
He has always been one of our shaggiest leading men, the movie star least interested in stardom, and in “Crazy Heart’’ Bridges lets it all hang out: gut, tongue, hair. Bad Blake is his appetites, and just enough self-awareness to comment on them. He sweats like a pig; his jaw wobbles as if Bridges were still channeling the Starman. The character could be Kris Kristofferson’s prodigal kid brother, animated not by orneriness (attractive though that might be) but by craft. Bad’s battered acoustic guitar is never far from his hand; more than his four ex-wives and even more than Jean, it’s the one lover that has never failed him.
The role may yet win Bridges his first Oscar, but it doesn’t feel like a reach; it doesn’t make you consider this actor anew the way 2004’s little-seen “The Door in the Floor’’ did. Bridges has the same love of craft Bad does, though, and the same distrust of showing it off. What he does has to look easy, and it has to feel familiar - only then can the truth sneak in. Trying out a new tune on Jean, Bad observes, “That’s the way it is with the good ones - you’re sure you’ve heard them before.’’ So it is with songs, country music movies, and great performances like this.