Jeff Bridges might be the greatest actor alive who has yet to win an Oscar. Certainly that’s the case among those who’ve been working steadily in leading roles for nearly four decades. In such instances, unfortunately, it often happens that Hollywood gets ashamed enough to give up the gold man only when the thespian in question turns in a big, showy, gimme-gimme performance that makes a mockery of their best work in the past. Bridges’ turn as a burnt-out, over-the-hill country singer in the mediocre Crazy Heart isn’t anywhere near as overbearing as, say, Al Pacino hooha-ing his way through Scent of a Woman, but it’ll still be kind of sad if Bridges is finally recognized for what amounts to a rote impression of Kris Kristofferson at his weariest. (He’s already won both the Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild awards for best actor, plus multiple critics’ nods.)
- Should actors sing?
Actually, viewed from another (even more cynical) angle, Bad Blake, the character Bridges plays in Crazy Heart, looks a bit like a southern-fried version of Billy Bob Thornton’s character from Bad Santa, except the movie isn’t playing him for laughs. A major star back in the day, Bad (as he prefers to be called) has now been reduced to performing his ancient hits for aging die-hard fans at a succession of truck stops and honky-tonks that are only a smidge less humiliating than the venues Spinal Tap used to “headline.” Generally soused to the gills, he frequently flees the stage for a quick mid-song puke in the parking lot; his days are spent arguing with his manager and driving hundreds of miles to the next sorry gig, pissing in a soda bottle en route. His obligatory shot at redemption comes in the form of eager young reporter Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who immediately falls for Bad’s lazy charisma, and an opportunity to open for rising slick-country sensation Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), who began his career—of course, needless to say, uh-huh—as Bad’s protégé.
The movie as a whole isn’t bad, just dispiritingly generic. First-time writer-director Scott Cooper, adapting a little-known novel by Thomas Cobb, hits every well-worn step on the Loser Finds Renewed Purpose trail, from initial crumpled apathy to climactic tentative hope. And he’s terrified that we won’t get it, so he underlines everything three times for good measure. Will we understand that Bad’s an alcoholic just by constantly seeing him with a shot of McClure’s whiskey in hand? Maybe having the proprietor at the first gig we see refuse to let him start a bar tab will really drive the message home. When Tommy Sweet sat down next to Bad in a public place, I literally started counting the seconds until someone would come by and ask the former for his autograph while completely ignoring the latter. (No joke: 13 seconds.) It’s just one hackneyed note after another, like any deep album cut by Garth Brooks.
Thankfully, the cast makes it a fairly easy sit. Still, while Bridges doesn’t embarrass himself here, this is a far cry from the beautifully subtle, genuinely lived-in performances he gave as a younger man in such films as Cutter’s Way and Fat City. He’s got fat, broad marks to hit, and he doesn’t miss; we carry enough affection for him into the theater to do the rest ourselves. Even so, you’ll have to strain to get your disbelief suspended during Bad’s many onstage numbers—the songs, written by T-Bone Burnett with various collaborators, are solid enough, but there is no conceivable way that Bridges, who does his own singing, would ever have been able to land a single paying gig anywhere, even adjusting for the fact that Bad Blake is well past his prime. If Bridges wins the Oscar, I won’t complain, but forgive me if I choose to pretend that he won it for The Big Lebowski instead.