Crazy Heart(1/31/2010)

1-31-2010CrazyHeart

[Editor’s Note: This review employs a literary device in which the reviewer exaggerates his opinion of the country music genre and its fans for comedic effect.  Those who lack a sense of humor in regards to this subject are advised not to read further.]

I’m going to say right from the top, in the interest of full disclosure, that I hate country music like poison.  I do sort of like folk music and vaguely country influenced rock music, but my prejudices against pure country music run pretty deep.  To me country is the music of rednecks, hillbillies, and yokels and nothing will ever change that.  Are my feelings rooted more in culture wars than in musical aesthetics?  Maybe, but I’ll maintain that I do dislike the music just as much as the anti-intellectual culture that seems to have sprung up around it.  So, it was with great reluctance that I decided to see a movie that was centrally about this most disgusting of musical creations.  Fortunately for the producers of the new country-themed film, Crazy Heart, I quite like Jeff Bridges and the reviews of his performance in said film have been ecstatic.  Consequently, I was willing to ignore the hick music and give the movie a chance simply because the dude abides.

The movie follows a man who goes by the name Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges), a washed and alcoholic up country singer who’s been reduced to playing at undignified stops like bowling alleys which he needs to travel to in a rickety old truck.  Blake’s career is in a tailspin and his only real hope is the humiliating prospect of making a duet album with a protégé of his named Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell) whose gone on to much greater commercial success. During a gig at a small bar in Santa Fe, Blake is asked to give an interview to an aspiring local reporter named Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal).  Craddock is a single mother who’s not really in a much better position in life than Blake.  They form a friendship that quickly turns into a romance that will give Blake’s life new meaning, but it might just be too late for this alcoholic wreck of a man.

The elephant in the room whenever this movie comes up is last year’s sleeper hit The Wrestler.  While the two films were undoubtedly produced separately and neither is likely to have ripped off the other, the similarities are nonetheless uncanny.  Both are films about entertainers who have aged to the point of irrelevance in their fields and are now playing embarrassingly small venues while dealing with substance abuse issues.  Both films also have their characters forming relationships with younger single mothers who are also having career issues.  Of the two movies, The Wrestler is a drastically superior take on the subject matter and Crazy Heart suffers significantly by comparison.  While The Wrestler used the setup to make a grander statement about the seductive nature of fame and about addiction as a whole, Crazy Heart is a movie that operates on a much more literal level and which is also unwilling to fully explore the darkest aspects of the material.  What’s more, comparing the aesthetic skills of, Scott Cooper (a not overly ambitious first-time director) to the likes of Darren Aronofsky just isn’t really fair.

Also like The Wrestler, this is a film that’s been heavily acclaimed for its lead performance, in this case by Jeff Bridges.  While I liked Bridge’s performance a lot, I can’t exactly say it quite lived up to the hype for me.  On the bright side, Bridge’s is a charmer and he pretty effectively conveys how his character can be a self destructive jerk at times while still remain likable.  On the other hand, I’m not sure he really makes the kind of transformation you expect out of a performance that’s been hyped this much, I can definitely see The Dude shine through at times during the movie.  I suspect that a lot of the performance’s praise has come from various pundit’s desire to see the long overdue Bridges win an Academy Award, and while I wouldn’t necessarily object to the actor being rewarded I don’t think his work here quite lives up to the better work done by the likes of Matt Daemon, Colin Firth, Sam Rockwell this year.

As for the film’s other acclaimed performance, that of Maggie Gyllenhaal, I have mixed feelings.  On one hand, Gyllenhaal does a perfectly good job in the film with some dialogue that could have been pretty problematic in the hands of a lesser actor.  However I have this nagging feeling that she was still miscast.  By problem largely centers around Gyllenhaal’s age: she’s almost half Bridges’ age.  I’ve got to say that these “geezer gets the girl” movies don’t really ring all that true to me, especially when the age difference isn’t really acknowledged.  One could maybe argue that the comparable relationship in The Wrestler also had an age difference (albeit a much smaller one than in this film), but the relationship their never really developed into a full on romance.  I also have mixed feelings about the presence of Collin Farrell in the movie.  On one hand this Irish ruffian doesn’t seem like an authentic good ol’ boy at all, but that may have actually been the intent.  The character he plays is supposed to seem like a bit of an inauthentic phony, and from a certain perspective Farrell would seem to be the perfect actor to be just that.

Finally I’m going to have to deal with the film’s music, and as I previously explained, that was the one element of the film I most dreaded having to deal with.  While the film certainly hasn’t converted me into an admirer of this cracker-ass music, I will admit that the music here was not as excruciating as I had expected.  Cooper was wise to make Bad Blake a relic of the Outlaw Country movement, which is generally one of the more agreeable brands of hillbilly music.  The Outlaw performers, like Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson, all had a rebellious aspect that put them a bit more in the spirit of rock and rollers than yokels who play most other forms of country music.  They seemed like genuinely cool people who somehow fell in with the wrong crowd.

The music here was mostly written and produced by a team consisting of veteran country guy Stephen Bruton, newcomer Ryan Bingham (who has a small role in the film), and the much buzzed producer T-Bone Burnett.  Jeff Bridges and even Collin Farrell performed all their own singing and seemed to do a pretty good job at it.  I don’t really have much of a reference point to judge any of this stuff; the songs all kind of sounded the same to me.  Even the song expected to win an Oscar nomination, “The Weary Kind,” didn’t sound much better or worse than the rest of the music in the film even though the characters seem to think it is.  The only song here that came close to impressing this hardened country-hater was a tune called “Fallin’ and Flying,” which seemed significantly better than the much hyped “Kind” and I’m not sure why one is getting more praise than the other.

Ultimately, my “responsible critic” conscious is telling me to set aside my petty Blue State prejudices and ignore the fact that this movie celebrates a form of music that I normally cannot tolerate.  In judging the movie I’m just going to pretend that the music being played was something decent like Rock, Jazz, Reggae, Hip Hop, or even Folk in order to give the movie a fair assessment.  All in all, this is a pretty good story and it’s a pretty well put together movie, but it lacks a certain spark of originality that it needs.  As unfortunate as the film’s proximity to The Wrestler is, the project would still probably feel pretty derivative of other works even if that prior project hadn’t come out first (Tender Mercies comes to mind).  So, if you can tolerate the music give this a chance, but if you’re not a fan like I am I don’t think there’s really enough here to recommend it to non-fans.

*** out of Four

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