Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Lazy Heart

Thirty years after playing a small Texas town’s dim, handsome jock in Peter Bogdanavich’s The Last Picture Show, Jeff Bridges returns to the parched Southwest in Crazy Heart, with what could be his breakthrough character gone to flesh and seed.

Bridges plays Bad Blake, an alcoholic over-the-hill country singer (Is there any other kind?) Bad’s boozy fall from grace lands him in a series of desert honky tonks for a string of desperate, sparsely attended shows played through a sweat and puke-stained shirt. Sparks somewhat unconvincingly fly when fledgling journalist Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal) stops by one show to interview the fallen star, and inspires his gradual, painful redemption.

Crazy Heart’s stubborn resistance to a plot-propelling conflict is an odd thing to see in a movie otherwise rife with clich├ęs.

Not every plotline can or should reinvent the wheel. And Crazy Heart has its moments. Its early live performance scenes endear us to and make us feel embarrassed for Bad. (You look on as the shows teeter on the verge of drunken disaster with the same wince Bad gives his lonely, weathered one night stands on those hungover mornings after.) These scenes also hint at some insight into the music industry. When Jean asks Bad if he “ever gets tired of playing” his signature big hit, I realized how tedious life on the road must get. I also wondered how the film’s composer, T. Bone Burnett, went about creating a soundtrack he knew going in would have to contain both crowd-pleasing hits and relative duds.

But Crazy Heart doesn’t dig deep enough. Musical interludes and discussions of the country genre (grizzled old vets of the “real” country versus the mass-produced poster boys—here embodied by an uncredited Colin Farrell’s Tommy Sweet—fronting the “glossy” modern country) are relegated to the sidelines. And don’t expect any revelations about journalism. For all we know, Maggie took it up as a hobby to avoid the extracurricular drudgery of crocheting.

What could have been and almost is a unique look at a craft like music or writing gives way to a trite, oddly listless romantic and family drama. Jean was burned in the past, so she’s weary of Bad. Bad adores Buddy, Jean’s son possibly more than Jean (shades of Jerry Maguire). Naturally this is because Bad is estranged from his own boy, with Buddy being the second in a line of surrogates after Tommy.

Then Bad’s struggle with the hooch kicks into high gear and Crazy Heart abruptly turns into Leaving Las Nashville. After Bad pukes into one too many motel room wastebaskets and loses Buddy as he gets plastered in a shopping mall bar, Jean rejects him and sends him straight into the arms of his buddy Wayne Kramer (the great Robert Duvall, also a producer, in a sinfully underwritten, boring and extraneous role).

There isn’t a bad performance across the board; even the faded floozies with caked on makeup who rub up against Bad have their charms. But aside from Bridges, no one’s acting or, more troublingly, character is memorable. Crazy Heart’s characters, like its loose strands of a plot (part concert movie, part alcoholic nightmare, part romance, part horror movie about aging) never cohere.

Crazy Heart plays like one of the commercial country hits Bad deplores, hinting at misery, but through a glossy veneer, with redemption never in doubt, just off the next exit on the lonely desert highway.