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Review

Strong performances, music make up for film’s flaws

Michael Brun

February 19, 2010

The tagline for director Scott Cooper’s “Crazy Heart” reads, “The harder the life, the sweeter the song.” No doubt about it, Bad Blake has lived a hard life. Once a successful country western musician, Blake is reduced to playing his old tunes in corner bars and bowling alleys. With a cigarette in one hand and a shot of his favorite whiskey in the other, he lives life like he can’t wait to die. And yet, when he takes the stage, he plays with an aura of sweet, sensuous emotion that belies his ragged exterior.

The role of Bad Blake feels like the perfect fit for star Jeff Bridges. Not since Mickey Rourke in 2008’s “The Wrestler” has an actor been so completely and authentically lost in a character. His performance is deep and affecting, but never overdone — achieving a level of believability that actors strive for but rarely obtain. Not only does it rank among the top performances of 2009, but it’s also one of the best in Bridges’ distinguished career. For the first time since “The Big Lebowski,” I was able to see Bridges as someone other than The Dude.

Although this is clearly Bridges’ show, “Crazy Heart” also features a strong supporting cast. Showing up as Blake’s former protégé is Irish bad-boy Colin Farrell. Surprisingly, he proves to be a talented country singer. The legendary Robert Duvall makes a brief appearance as well. I only wish he would have played a larger role in the film, as the few scenes he shares with Bridges are nothing short of cinema gold.

Spending the most screen time with Bridges is co-star Maggie Gyllenhaal. Her performance as a struggling single mother may lack Bridges’ natural subtly, but it’s not without merit; she’s lively and raw, perfectly contrasting Bridges’ aged melancholy.

Bridges and Gyllenhaal both excel in their individual roles, but together they are the film’s greatest weakness. They become lovers early in the story, and it’s this relationship that drives Blake to better his ways. Unfortunately, they never feel like a believable pair. Gyllenhaal’s actions rarely match her motives — she seeks to find a better life for her son, but is all too willing to bring an alcoholic like Blake into her home. Considering that this love affair is so vital to the story, its implausibility is almost a deal breaker.

The underlining theme in “Crazy Heart” is redemption. As Blake fights to overcome his many vices, he proves that it’s never too late to teach an old dog new tricks. Frankly, this theme has been handled better elsewhere. I think that the before-mentioned “Wrestler” is ultimately a superior redemption movie — reaching a powerful emotional climax that “Crazy Heart” falls just short of.

However, with such strong performances by Bridges et al, it’s not hard to look past the film’s flaws. Also, considering that this was director Scott Cooper’s big-screen debut (he also takes writing and producing credits), I would say that he did an admirable job. Although his first attempt is not perfect, I would keep an eye on him in the future. Jason Reitman might have some competition in the up-and-coming director scene.

Go for the acting, but stay for the mu- sic. “Crazy Heart” is a touching — if not original — tale of redemption that is just different enough to feel fresh. There are better films out there, but none have Bridges’ phenomenal performance.

Michael Brun is an alumnus of UW-River Falls.