Having gone through the drill himself a quarter-century ago in “Tender Mercies”—and winning an Oscar for it—it’s perhaps not surprising that Robert Duvall should have agreed not only to help produce Scott Cooper’s picture about a dissolute country singer redeemed by his affection for a woman and her young son, but to take a supporting role in it as well. The movie is adapted from a novel by Thomas Cobb, but it—and the book, it seems—certainly owe a debt to Horton Foote’s screenplay for “Mercies,” acknowledged or not.
In “Crazy Heart,” though, it’s Jeff Bridges—already being mentioned as an Oscar contender himself—who plays the singer, called Bad Blake; Duvall is featured as his old buddy Wayne, who runs a bar in Houston, the place Bad calls home when he’s not driving from one-night stand to one-night stand on the road. It’s while on his latest tour of saloons and bowling alleys in New Mexico and Arizona that the boozing, womanizing Bad meets Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal), an aspiring journalist who approaches him for an interview. Before long they’re romantically involved, though the gruff charmer seems an unlikely choice for the wary younger woman. Still, her cute-as-a-button four-year old son Buddy (Jack Nation) takes a shine to him, and before long he’s trying to arrange stops at her place while criss-crossing the desert highways to his gigs.
Bad’s connection with Jean and Buddy doesn’t end his self-destructive alcoholism, but it does make him reconsider his past mistakes. He tries to contact the son he’d abandoned a quarter-century earlier, and begins to smooth things out with his former protégé Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), who’s now big star on the circuit and not only arranges for Bad to open for him at a Phoenix auditorium but offers to pay good money for new songs Blake might write. But a car crash and a booze-driven mishap involving Buddy when Jean and the boy come to visit him in Houston cast Bad’s hopeful future into doubt.
It’s nice that “Crazy Heart” doesn’t follow the simplest possible trajectory to Bad’s redemption. Sweet, it turns out, is no villainous turncoat but a fellow who genuinely wants to help his old mentor, and Tom Bower, as Blake’s agent, is no heartless money-grubber but a fellow with affection for his client. The attempt to reconnect with his son is no “Unsolved Mysteries” panacea. And while Bad might wind up a man changed for the better, his final situation isn’t the happily-ever-after one you might be led to expect.
Still, the general thrust of the script is awfully familiar, and it has to be said that as is usual in such stories, it’s the ornery, disreputable guy at the beginning of the narrative who’s more fun than the responsible soul at the close (his scenes with young Nation in particular don’t avoid mawkishness)—a point reinforced by Bridge’s wily performance. He rejoices in playing the grizzled boozehound in the early reels, and is much less enjoyable to watch as the more restrained fellow at the close, who even tells us he intends to jettison his stage moniker and use his given name—Otis of all things—from now on.
Nonetheless Bridges’ is an authentic star turn—complete with convincingly drunken renditions of Blake’s past hits—that captures perfectly the character’s sad state, and it controls the tempo of the picture; Cooper’s direction follows the disheveled, meandering, slow-paced aura that Bridges brings to Bad, allowing the performance to blossom but also making for a picture whose deliberation accentuates its predictability.
The rest of the cast mostly circulate around Bridges, but to good effect. Gyllenhaal can go gooey a mite too easily, but she generally persuades you of the possibility of so attractive a woman being attracted to such a troubled charmer, and Farrell makes Sweet a more likable figure than he might have been (he sings decently, too). As for Duvall, he could have played old codger Wayne in his sleep, but as always he’s thoroughly engaging even in a stock role. Technically, this is a no-frills production, but Barry Markowitz’s widescreen camerawork uses the southwestern locations well, and captures the seediness of the motel rooms where Bad stays and the lounges he plays. Special mention should be made of the songs, newly-written but with the feel of the real thing.
“Crazy Heart” hardly fulfills the promise of the titular adjective—it’s ruminative and moody rather than wild. But it’s an utterly familiar but mostly satisfying character study of a man rescued from the brink of self-destruction, attuned to the rhythm of an eye-catching star performance that must have had Duvall wistfully remembering his own of a quarter-century ago.