Tuesday, February 2, 2010




Amongst the many great songs in CRAZY HEART is one whose chorus says "Funny, I fall and it feels like flyin' for a little while."

I keep coming back to this lyric since the two sensations can indeed feel so close. In both cases the weight of the world gets lifted, and anything seems possible. However in life, one obviously shouldn't confuse the two since the end results couldn't possibly be more different.

CRAZY HEART is the story of Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges). Blake was once a big country star, but at 57 he's fallen on hard times. How hard? When the film opens we see Blake arriving to play the night's gig . . . in a bowling alley. To say Blake is down on his luck would be putting it mildly. The man is driving from gig to gig alone in his 1980 Suburban. He has no family, is staying in seedy motels, playing for food money, and essentially bleeds whiskey. Bad Blake has become the embodiment of every sad country song you've ever heard.

At one tour stop in Santa Fe, he is introduced to Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal). She's a budding writer and asks Blake for an interview. When Blake agrees, her charm ends up disarming him, and he finds himself opening up far more than usual. As the interviews continue, the two develop a relationship, and soon enough Blake is finding reasons to double back to Santa Fe. Jean is enticed by the sudden life spark she can see in Blake but wary since he isn't exactly walking the line, and she's a single mom who has witnessed such behavior before.

In amongst all of this, Blake is having trouble dealing with the success of Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), a hotshot star of new country who he mentored to fame. Sweet has all the fame and fortune that Blake doesn't but not near the talent. Blake isn't quite seething with jealousy, but it's a bitter pill to swallow when your protégé is playing amphitheatres and you're playing bars.

Bridges gives a great performance in a good film. As Bad Blake, he embraces the grizzle of a life lived hard. From his posture to his voice, he embodies a man who has accepted a particular lot in life and really doesn't have the drive to make his own luck. It's amazing to watch him talk to fans and admirers since he smiles politely and speaks with warmth but always seems like he wants to cry from shame. Bridges takes the roughest elements of Kris Kristofferson and Merle Haggard and rolls them into one character. It is indeed an award-worthy performance.

The movie on the whole, however, is spotty. By the final act, the movie feels like a Frankenstein of a few other movies. Indeed, CRAZY HEART has elements of WALK THE LINE, HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH, and THE WRESTLER. The music scene is full of people like Blake, people who played songs we all know by heart but who are now playing a nightly gig at the Holiday Inn. CRAZY HEART is unfortunately not their story. In fact Blake's performing and songwriting get packed up and set aside for a good long while, and the story instead focuses on his relationship with Jean and her son.

This is especially sad since the music is one of the very best things about this movie. It's filled with original country songs created by Ryan Bingham and T-Bone Burnett, all of which have the appropriate amount of built-in sadness even when they are up-tempo. Each one sums up Bad Blake in ways he can't seem to say himself. If you listen closely enough, within the lyrics and chord changes you'll hear the story to every single line on Blake's face. It’s music you will want to download the moment the credits roll.

It saddens me that the waters of this story have been so muddied since all the elements of a truly great film are there. Much like the character of Jean, this film leads with its heart instead of its head, and that's where it goes wrong. It wants us to fall for the weary legend like a groupie on the side of the stage, but it’s one thing to fall for the star and a whole other thing entirely to fall for a tribute band covering the star. CRAZY HEART comes close, and features one of the best performances of the year, but when it's all over, the film doesn't fly. It falls.


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