'Crazy Heart' won Jeff Bridges a well-deserved Best Actor Oscar for playing a down-and-out, alcoholic singer who struggles to pick up the pieces of his shattered life. Raw, real, and imbued with warmth, pathos, and wry humor, the portrayal touches the heart without feeling forced or manipulative. It also nicely ices a fine yet quiet career for the often underrated, yeoman actor who has toiled diligently for more than four decades, embracing a wide range of characters from hunky heartthrob to distinguished visionary to cartoon villain. Here he's aided by an astute adaptation of Thomas Cobb's novel by first-time screenwriter and director Scott Cooper and top-flight supporting work from Maggie Gyllenhaal, Robert Duvall, and Colin Farrell, who's surprisingly convincing as a young country music star. Yet, while I appreciated the picture's performances and the material's sensitive, understated treatment, I found the 'Crazy Heart' story rather trite and clichéd, following the typical arcs and hammering home the same tired themes as many other films with a showbiz/addiction slant.
Bridges plays boozy, disheveled Bad Blake, a respected country musician on the skids who takes his nickname to heart. Although deep down he's a good egg, he behaves badly, makes bad decisions, and can't steer clear of bad relationships. He subsists by lumbering around the country playing a series of fourth-rate one-night stands in a host of dilapidated dives, earning barely enough dough to feed his thirst for liquor. The horizon brightens a bit, though, when he's interviewed by journalist Jane Craddock (Gyllenhaal), and the two begin a tentative romance. Jane, along with her four-year-old son, helps Bad embark on the long road to recovery, but Bad veers off the path more than once, jeopardizing their relationship and his future. Watching Bad try to rehabilitate himself, quash his demons, and stand on his own forms the film's crux.
'Crazy Heart' sports a distinct Horton Foote feel, recalling such works by the acclaimed writer as 'Baby, the Rain Must Fall' and especially 'Tender Mercies.' (The participation of Duvall, who coincidentally won a Best Actor Oscar for the latter film, in which he, too, plays an alcoholic, on-the-skids, struggling-for-redemption country singer – and, like Bridges, does his own singing – only serves to emphasize the striking similarities.) Simple, yet finely textured characters populate and dominate the picture, and plot takes a back seat to their development. As a result, 'Crazy Heart' moseys along at a leisurely pace, allowing us to drink in subtle details and really connect with the actors on screen. The script, however, lacks the lyricism Foote often brings to his work, and the flat dialogue is short on veiled truths and resonating phrases that make character studies like this have lasting impact.
Cooper compensates, though, by infusing 'Crazy Heart' with a low-budget, gritty, independent spirit that keeps artifice at bay most of the time. Though the story may seem familiar ('The Wrestler' also springs to mind as a close cousin), its presentation is rarely hackneyed, leaving us with an appreciation of the work, if not a true affinity for it. 'Crazy Heart' is certainly a solid enough film – meticulously constructed and carefully mounted – but not one that stoked my passions.
Individual elements stand out more than the whole, with Bridges leading the way. Terms like tour de force accurately describe his work, which always will be remembered as a distinct high point in a distinguished career. Though he looks eerily like Kris Kristofferson (on whom the character of Bad is reportedly based in part), Bridges brings plenty of his patented low-key attitude to the role, and is unafraid to embrace every unpleasant aspect of it. Gyllenhaal plays off him well, and though the two make an unlikely couple, her honest, unaffected interpretation helps us buy the relationship. Duvall is, well, Duvall, portraying – for him – a stereotypical role. (He's now of that age and stature, much like De Niro and Pacino, that makes it difficult to divorce his legendary persona from any part he plays.) Farrell, though, makes a great impression (and sings darn well, too), even if we do spend most of his on-screen time admiring his performance instead of connecting with his character.
In the end, 'Crazy Heart' is an above average indie film that never quite adds up to the sum of its parts. Though it avoids cheap sentiment and pat resolutions, this thoughtful slice-of-life drama doesn't possess enough weight to stick to our ribs and cling to our heart. Bridges gives the piece a lovely voice, literally and figuratively, but even his excellent work can't make it truly sing.
'Crazy Heart' arrives on Blu-ray sporting a much more polished transfer than one might expect given the gritty subject matter. Clean, vibrant, and bursting with detail, the image quality is superior to most independent films I've seen. Colors are bold but not artificial and really thrust us into the windswept Southwest exteriors. Lines are sharp and well-defined, but faint grain lends the picture good texture, and excellent contrast heightens depth. Close-ups are marvelously crisp and fleshtones always look natural. Rich, solid black levels add warmth and presence, and shadow delineation is generally good. Edge enhancement, banding, and noise reduction are all absent, making this presentation a pleasure to watch from start to finish.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track provides clear, consistent sound that complements the on-screen action well. Independent films don't usually provide much in the bells and whistles category, and 'Crazy Heart' is no exception, but the lack of much surround activity or thumping bass frequencies doesn't drag down its score. The audio never envelopes like the best multi-channel efforts, but the sound field is broad enough, with good dynamic range and warm, full tones. Dialogue is always prominent and easy to understand, and the musical interludes benefit from fine fidelity and excellent presence, with both vocals and instrumentals providing a you-are-there concert feel. A slight level boost pumps up the music's intensity, but never throws the track out of whack, and doesn't require any tinkering with the remote. This mix won't knock your socks off, but it gets the job done without any noticeable deficiencies.
Extras are pretty paltry, but considering the film's low budget, the meager offerings are not at all surprising. What is surprising, however, is the lack of an audio commentary, as the insights of first-time writer-director Scott Cooper would undoubtedly have been informative and fascinating.
Jeff Bridges was born to play a musician, and though my favorite performance of his remains the one he gave in 'The Fabulous Baker Boys' (when is that great film coming to Blu-ray?), his work in 'Crazy Heart' ranks a close second. Filled with affecting moments and punctuated by a striking naturalness, this searing portrayal deserved every accolade it received. The film as a whole, however, failed to fully ignite my passions, often feeling too much like a retread of previously released material. Stellar video and audio transfers enhance the disc, but a skimpy supplemental package drags it back down a notch or two. Still, 'Crazy Heart' is worth a look for its first-class performances, understated style, and big heart.