February 04, 2010

Crazy Heart

Mr. and Mrs. Oscar

Grade: B –

Director: Scott Cooper

Starring: Jeff Bridges, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Colin Ferrell, and Robert Duvall

MPAA Rating: R

Running Time: 1 hour, 52 minutes

“A recovering alcoholic country music singer/songwriter seeks to turn his life around through his relationship with a young woman and her son.”

Older, discerning filmgoers will recognize this synopsis of Tender Mercies, the 1983 Horton Foote-penned film that gave Robert Duvall his only Oscar. More than a quarter-century later, cinematic history is poised to repeat itself with Crazy Heart, a film with the same premise – and a supporting turn by Duvall, for Pete’s sake – that is probably going to give the just-nominated Jeff Bridges his first Academy Award.

Broadly, Crazy Heart rehashes the general theme of the down-and-out has-been looking for both personal and professional redemption. But its most glaring similarity with the likes of True Grit, Million Dollar Baby, The Wrestler, and, yes, Tender Mercies is their ideation of the Jungian archetype of the Wise Old Man, an authority/father figure and spiritual guide that manifests itself in many forms. According the Jung, the Old Man represents the masculine unconscious for women. Conversely, one facet of his ascendancy to Wise Old Man is an integration of the feminine components of the psyche.

Thus, the Wise Old Man is often accompanied in literature by a young girl, personifying the melding of Logos and Eros (Meaning and Life). With the lone exception of The Wrestler, where the two main characters were closer in age, such is the case in all the films mentioned above. (As an ironic aside, Bridges is slated to star in an upcoming Coen Brothers remake of True Grit.)

In Crazy Heart, middle-aged boozy crooner ‘Bad’ Blake (Bridges) suffers a solitary life of faded glory. Once the toast of Nashville, Bad now drives his beat-up pickup from one dustbowl to another, staying in cheap motels and grinding out gigs in seedy bars and bowling allies. Bad’s salvation begins once he launches a romantic relationship with the much-younger Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal), an aspiring journalist and divorcée raising her 4-year-old son.

Besides its derivative storyline, this directorial debut from co-screenwriter Scott Cooper suffers from a lack of genuine chemistry between its lead actors. Beyond their distracting age difference (28 years), Gyllenhaal – long an indie darling who, admittedly, is also Oscar nominated for her performance here – has gradually devolved her once accomplished acting style into a collection of tics and mannerisms, suggesting a self-indulgence that demands roles and scenes adapt to her method instead of the other way around.

Conflict resolution comes easy, like speed bumps along the route to an altogether anticlimactic finish line. Bad’s sobriety is only an AA meeting montage away. His financial woes instantly vanish once he swallows his pride and starts composing songs again for former protégé, country music star Tommy Sweet (Colin Ferrell), who stands ready to help his erstwhile mentor. And when Bad visits a bar and loses track of Jean’s son, it only takes a few anxious moments for the boy to summarily turn-up; Jean’s ire at Bad’s irresponsibility is massively tempered by the fact that she lets an alcoholic scalawag babysit her son in the first place.

Still, even when Bad is at his baddest, he never fully loses his lovable Lebowski-esque charm. While Crazy Heart has as much originality as a country-standard cover band, Bridges’ terrific solo act is a showstopper. The film is transparently and unabashedly designed as a vehicle for his overdue Oscar, and, frankly, that’s a goal worth endorsing.

Neil Morris

*Originally published at www.indyweek.com

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