Crazy Heart deserves credit for nabbing Jeff Bridges the most awards buzz he's ever gotten. Few actors can hold a candle to Bridges, particularly in the age of method acting. Bridges doesn't need to research his character, work for a brief period of time in the character's written occupation or any other nonsense that typically involves the crew of a film putting up with an actor yelling at them because "my character is a mean person." No, Bridges has the ability to simply be the character, without having to jump through hoops and blow his own horn to do so.
Having said that, Bridges does have a personal connection to Bad Blake, albeit not nearly to the same degree as the deep tragedy that linked Mickey Rourke to his own spotlight role as Randy the Ram in The Wrestler, the film everyone has made annoyingly sure to tie to this one. With a long-held passion for country music, Bridges had the chance of a lifetime, and he proved that music was more than a hobby for him when he declined to take the part until he heard some songs attached to it. Indeed, T-Bone Burnett deserves as much of the credit as Bridges for any allure of the film; his contributions read and sound like proper country ditties from a time long past, familiar enough to add a shade of verisimilitude without sounding like cheap rip-offs.
But, as Bad Blake has learned from a lifetime of writing songs for other performers, it's the person in front of the people who matters. We meet Bridges in what simply has to be an homage to his brilliantly off-kilter role in The Big Lebowski, as Bad arrives after a long haul -- long enough to require carrying a jug for...um, in-transit relief -- to find himself at a bowling alley where he's meant to play a gig. Like the Dude, Bad's hair is unkempt, and he sports a scraggly beard, but as he sits at the alley bar, the differences become instantly apparent. Bad has years of hard living etched into his face, deep lines that don't seem to be anywhere on Jeff Bridges in the real world. He's almost always looking down, either in shame of his alcoholism or in derision of the shit dives where he's forced to ply his wares (and at himself). You can practically smell the stink on him, sweat, cigarettes and cheap booze swirling about him as a toxic cloud. If Bridges is not as intense as Rourke (no one is as intense as Rourke), he is just as able to tap into the tragedy of a person who watched as a dream gently floated out of his reach and kept plugging on because he didn't know what else to do.
Vague references are made about one Tommy Sweet, a young country star who learned everything from Blake before moving on to a lucrative solo career. Bad doesn't want to talk about it, though when we meet Tommy (Colin Farrell, who appears to be using his Sony Crockett voice with a slight twang) he's nothing but grateful for his mentor's help and eager to help him get his life on-track. Slowly, Bad realizes this, and the two begin to renew their friendship and professional relationship.
But this happens relatively quickly, and it reveals the fundamental weakness of Crazy Heart: the script. One should cut writer-director Scott Cooper a certain amount of slack for his debut, but nothing about Crazy Heart, other than Bridges and the music, seems real. Bad gives an interview to a young reporter in Santa Fe, Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal), and the two fall in love. Her young son Buddy (who, I'm sorry, is annoying) reminds Bad of a son he never got to know, and the shadow of his alcoholism hangs over the relationship until it appears in a tedious and predictable -- and almost mystical, given the sudden gaps of logic to account for the event that affects the couple -- manner.
Everyone seems to be hitting marks in this film, even Bridges, who manages to add spice here and there. The Wrestler was also clichéd and overly familiar, but it stood out not merely for Rourke's performance but the tiny details in the picture that made it true. Randy playing himself in an old NES game that's as obsolete as he is, the drunken midday singalong to Quiet Riot, these moments don't exist in Crazy Heart, busy as it is shuffling off to the next necessary plot advancement. Little aspects of Bridges' performance -- his fiddling with a door chain, the way he balances a glass full of whiskey on his chest as he lays with his shirt open and apologizes after meeting Jean for not probably not being who she wanted him to be -- make impressions, perhaps more so because nothing else does.
If Bridges receives the Oscar for his work here -- and all signs point to 'Yes' -- I suppose it might be his "better late than never" award. But his performance here is not simpering and desperate like Pacino's in Scent of a Woman; it's not even good-but-unremarkable as was Newman's in The Color of Money. No, Bridges is set to receive one of the few belated Oscars that's just as deserving for the title that won it as the body of work that secured it. I cared about Bad Blake, even as I had trouble focusing on the screen for all the eye rolling that the plot induced. You can tell he's a fuck-up from the moment you lay eyes on him, but like Jean you'll fall in love with him no matter how many times you tell yourself it's a bad idea. Crazy Heart is so by-the-numbers it might as well be a country standard, but all you need to do is hitch your wagon to Bridges and the rundown Suburban he drives across the Southwest in the film and he'll see you through to the end.