Monday, 8 March 2010

Crazy Heart (2009)

* * * *

(Dir. Scott Cooper, 2009)

So where do all those songs come from?

Life unfortunately.

The comparisons between Crazy Heart and last year's
The Wrestler have been cumbersome but unavoidable, as Scott Cooper's double Academy Award winning movie succeeds in debunking another cultural myth that has become the status quo (particularly in Britain): country singers are charming but bland, and sing soberly for drunk redneck audiences. Likewise wrestling is supposedly a fake, glamorous adventure, yet we believe in Mickey Rourke's suffering, or it is foolish not to. Unfortunately The Wrestler is a far more complete movie, cutting constantly and furiously between the exhaustion of love and lust and broken bodies. Meanwhile Crazy Heart's slow pace is infrequently justified; Cooper doesn't dig deep enough to reveal the worst artefacts of alcoholism. Instead, protagonist Bad Blake crashes his van breaking an ankle, drunkenly vomits in his bathroom, ruins a promising romance with a pretty journalist by losing her son at a bar for a couple of hours. And comfortably, Bad is rehabilitated for the film's final chapter without an audience to sing to, without a family to go home to. Contrast this with The Wrestler, where Randy is reacquainted with his only true family - the wrestling community - and performs for them until the very last, unforgettable, frame.

Crazy Heart, Bad Blake, a single, past-it, alcoholic country musician, discloses to the new love of his life: "I was never one for country charm". The dye is cast, and Jeff Bridges's career-defining character is 57-years-old, having failed his talent, his four marriages and the son he has never known. The momentum for the plot is that Bad's music has influenced an old friend and commercially successful country performer, Tommy Sweet (a smart Colin Farrell), who now takes pity on Bad and invests in the resurrection of his career. But Brad is (accidentally) sceptical, (accidentally) self-harmful and (accidentally) still able to make great music. Perhaps like 'The Dude', the appeal of Jeff Bridges's new cult hero is that he, too, is both naturally cool and naturally enlightening.

Crazy Heart is sculpted with the kind of emotional dexterity that makes a movie stronger second time around. A single mother checks on her little boy, asleep in his pyjamas. On a day out, a hot air balloon returns gently to the surface of the earth, mother and son in its dreamy basket, all smiles, Bad waiting for them on crutches. Bad has stepped in to play husband to Jean and father to Buddy, a brief act, as if for a musical, and inevitably he pays for his drink-habit by losing both. Many reviews suggest that Crazy Heart's artistry can be solely attributed to Jeff Bridges, but this simply isn't true. The film only really begins when Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal: Paris Je t'aime, The Dark Knight) is introduced. She is an amateur music journalist, fascinated by Bad, whose peneterative eyes locate his dormant charisma, our first serious distraction from the directionlessness and vastness of the film's country landscape. Indeed the tonality is so wild and barren that we, along with these American dreamers, are urgently reawakened when an urban unit of skyscrapers and busy noise enters percussively and with unremitting possibility into the narrative for its final thrust.

Ryan Bingham and T-Bone Burnett's Academy Award winning best song,
The Weary Kind, mustn't be neglected: the ballard is paramount in driving home sorrow, in sinking heavy hopes, and when Bridges dons the guitar, the always-paradigmatic harmonies are touching, visceral, accomplished. So when Bad is losing faith in his guitar and in his words, succumbing to drink, who else to recover a film, if we were experiencing any doubts, than Robert Duvall? Duvall features as an aphoristic-talking cowboy-philosopher, "It's never too late son... Comon, we're going fishing", and through his assuming paternity, a vintage cameo reassures us that despite any ending, Bad Blake will not die alone.

Bridges has it all: from whispering sinlessly,
I love you, to Gyllenhaal in absolute privacy, to smoking and strumming in his shades, pending a cigarette, sipping a whisky, to composing poetry out of wretchedness in specs, and to put all this into music, Crazy Heart is the sum of its parts - cool, seductive and still sad. It's Bridges winking, Gyllenhaal blushing, acoustic strings, tobacco smoke in the air, a cowboy hat in the way of a kiss: these are the timeless images to treasure. Far from instant classic status, Crazy Heart is a dry throat of a film, quenched by an oasis of meaningful words whose voices and chords might just endure. I chose the above photograph, though it clashes with Bad Blake's weariness, because at last night's Academy Awards a triumphant Jeff Bridges meant artistic justice.

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