Many people have an artistic talent in them: that book that they've always been meaning to write, that idea rattling around in their head, that picture they want to paint. Life often gets in the way: the day job that pays the bills, the family to take care of, and the friends to spend time with. A few people realise that they can make a career of it; some of them are right and show a genuine talent, enabling them to live off their artistic ability. However such talent normally goes hand in hand with an inability to have a stable, functioning life. It is quite difficult to juggle the ingredients sometimes required to fuel such art (odd hours, alcohol and drug abuse) with a 'normal' life. The hours are sporadic, the money even more so; it's a way of life that does not tend to work so well interspliced with a partner, kids and the whole nine yards.
Actors themselves can often fall into this category of 'artists', whose very success can mess with their ability to function normally: their relationships and personal lives feed the press and voyeuristic public; and all that money and fame does not come with a manual on how to cope with it without going off the rails. There is some irony then, in the way in which actors portray famous artists (musicians, performers and so forth) who have such problems with normal life, because - sometimes - they have been through it first-hand themselves. A prime example is Mickey Rourke, who was all set to be 'the next Brando' when things went south. Drug and alcohol abuse, spousal abuse, an ill-timed (if successful) midlife boxing career and subsequent reconstructive plastic surgery (that went wrong): his fall from fame and exile from Hollywood was well-documented. Then he got back in the limelight with his notable performance in the fan-popular Sin City, but did not really get the critical acclaim until his tour-de-force (pseudo-autobiographical) role in The Wrestler. He should have won the Oscar. A year later and Jeff Bridges - another actor who has never really gotten the recognition (or roles) he deserves - took on some similar subject-matter to Oscar-winning effect, with Crazy Heart. But did he really deserve it, and - even if he did - is the film actually any good?
Bad Blake is the epitome of everything you would associate with Country and Western music: he is broke, he drives around in a beat up Silverado truck which he has named Betty, he always uses the same beloved old guitar on stage, he drinks like a fish (often during performances) and has just come out of his fourth marriage. He sings songs about 'falling feeling likes flying... for a little while' and is still living the on-the-road life you would expect from a man much younger, at the more risky-to-your-health age of 57. Agreeing to do an interview for the upcoming reporter niece of his piano-player, Jean, he sees in her an angel in his life. And he just does not know what to do with it. Trying to hold it together - be a good male figure for her young son, be a charming partner for her, and still performing on the road - he is still unable to stay away from the demon drink. Will it finally be his ultimate downfall or will he be able to ditch the addiction in time to make a real life for himself with this angel he has just met?
Crazy Heart is supposed to be loosely based on the lives of a bunch of real Country and Western singers (including fellow actor Kris Kristofferson - whose own life has involved 3 wives, 8 children and a music career that had far more downs than ups) and is a nuanced, realistic character-study of the archetypal (once-famous) Country and Western performer, struggling to exist in a modern age of soulless, younger counterparts, and finding it increasingly hard to hold their life together. In that respect, it is actually a fairly familiar, well-trodden tale, which fans may compare to everything from the Johnny Cash story, Walk the Line, to the less well-known but equally worthy 1983 film Tender Mercies (which won Robert Duvall, a co-star on this movie, a Best Actor Oscar as well, for a near-identical story). Even beyond the music realm, this kind of depressingly realistic life-story of a broken-down, largely forgotten, passed-their-prime performer has been done numerous other times, and often better (The Wrestler).
Without a doubt, the only standout thing about Crazy Heart is the central performance from Jeff Bridges. It's predictable (once he meets Jean, and she says 'just don't drink in front of my son' you are constantly waiting for things to go wrong), and - without Bridges - the movie would feel like a walking cliché. Somehow he elevates the film above that though, bringing us a subtle but extremely effective performance as the ageing alcoholic singer Bad Blake. Effortlessly absorbing us in the drama, it takes just a few scenes for him to become Blake (both in his dialogue, and with his excellent music - reminiscent of the same multi-talent he showed on Fabulous Baker Boys) to the point where you wonder just how much of it Bridges himself went through in his own life. And that's what Bridges does - despite his relative low profile over the years, he is consistently good at looking like he's not acting, but simply being the character (especially as The Dude, in one of the Coen Brother's best works, The Big Lebowski).
He's not the only good actor involved, with the likes of the underused Colin Farrell (The New World) and the scene-stealing Robert Duvall (Open Range) rounding out the cast further into the film. But his co-star is definitely the unconventionally gorgeous Maggie Gyllenhaal (The Secretary). And, despite playing the part perfectly, she simply does not convince as a love interest for Bridges' ageing wreck of a Country singer. It's either because she's too young (at a youthful 32 she fits the 'could be his daughter' cliché) or because she's just too glamorous for the role. She effortlessly mixes girl-next-door qualities with unquestionable inner beauty, but it is almost a shame that she is at the prime of her life, as it comes across in the movie. And without playing the role down, as perhaps she could have done, you perpetually think to yourself: this relationship just does not make any sense.
Still, despite the overly-familiar narrative which really does try its best (but often fails) to surprise, and despite Maggie shining a little too brightly for her own boots, Bridges centrepiece performance holds it all together, focussing the drama down to just the desperate soul-searching plight of one world-weary alcoholic.
However, even though he is unquestionably the biggest (and arguably only significant) reason to watch this movie, whether or not he deserved the Oscar is another thing entirely. Firstly, although I much preferred Up in the Air as a whole, I think it was right that Clooney should lose the Oscar to Bridges (personally, I think he deserved it more for Michael Clayton even if, again rightfully, he lost out to powerhouse Day-Lewis). Bridges' contribution, whilst playing a far more clichéd character, is simply more powerful. But following the same logic, it is hard to rationalise why Mickey Rourke did not get similarly rewarded for an even stronger (and far more original) performance in The Wrestler. Frankly, Darren Aronofski's low-budget character-study - wielding a heart-wrenching, introspective Rourke (who scarily blurs reality with fiction as he too simply becomes the part) - is a far more substantial and potent drama... it just does not look or sound as pretty as the comparatively glossy Crazy Heart.
The Oscars committee always appears to be playing catch-up with critical acclaim. Scorsese didn't win his Award for Directing Raging Bull, or even - relatively recently - The Aviator, but for his stylish but unnecessary remake of the great Hong Kong crime drama Infernal Affairs. He didn't deserve it then, he deserved it for other films, making the eventual award feel more like a tribute to his overall body of work, rather than just on The Departed. Similarly Denzel Washington, who (and it's a tough choice) lost out to Al Pacino for the Best Actor Award in 1983, did not get the Oscar until Training Day (at a time when Will Smith should have really won for Ali). It's confusing because it feels like the Oscars are always behind the times. Honestly, how many people are going to remember Sean Penn's turn in Milk over Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler? Still, when all is said and done, Jeff Bridges deserved his Award here, even if the vehicle he used to get there isn't itself all that worthy.
Crazy Heart remains a great study of wasted talent, broken-down existence and debilitating alcoholism as channelled by Bridges' lead performance. It may all feel like familiar territory, but his performance brings it all together, echoing his characters' words about how the best new Country and Western songs are the ones you've think heard before. It's an exceptional performance in an above-average film, and definitely makes it worth seeing.
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