Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Crazy Heart

In the first minutes of Crazy Heart, a charismatic old troubadour pulls off the highway, stops his truck in a sleepy bowling alley parking lot and emerges holding a jug containing about a gallon of urine, which he empties onto the asphalt. Perhaps the deep golden color is intended as foreshadowing: that's the piss of an alcoholic. I simply thought it was a hilarious way to open a movie.

Unfortunately, that's about where the film's accidental sense of humor runs out of steam.

Crazy Heart is the story of a washed up singer-songwriter who descends into alcoholism then descends some more and finally descends some more. The Wrestler-style pathetic helplessness of Bad Blake (not his given name) is so relentless that by the time the film gets around to redemption it's not the third act but the fifth or the sixth. The film runs just shy of two hours, into which are crammed pants-less vomiting, a drunken car wreck, a lost child, a desperate one-night-stand, squirm-inducing surrogate parenthood and more bottles of whiskey than I care to count.

Jeff Bridges is the man behind Bad, and like Clooney in Up in the Air, his star-power (charisma, celebrity, raw talent, what have you) is the only reason there's any conversation to be had about the film at all. Crazy Heart does have some good music (courtesy of T-Bone Burnett and a cast of collaborators) and Bridges has implied that it was the opportunity to shred his acoustic axe that hooked him to the role in the first place. But the film framing all the singing is meandering and overlong, the product of a first-time writer-director who hasn’t learned too much about editing or structure.

Leave it to Bridges to shoulder the hot mess like a champion. He shows up with all his guns blazing, disappearing behind several pounds of beer gut and a lot of messy gray hair, issuing his slurred charm in every direction. You can see why Maggie Gyllenhaal's Jean likes him so much.

Jean and Bad end up spending more than a little time together. Bridges is thirty years Gyllenhaal's senior and he looks it; their relationship is built on an Electra complex that is certainly creepy and the film never manages to conjure any hint of faith in their ability to unite as adults can, either through love or merely for the sake of her kid.

For Jean, Bad becomes some kind of last best hope that her son might have a man in his life. To Bad, however, she’s a rare fan who shows interest in him professionally (she’s a journalist) as opposed to sexually. Bad has grown tired of the lifer fans throwing themselves at him in dive bars and bowling alleys; Jean doesn’t air a vested interest in Bad’s singer-songwriter notoriety. The first time she meets him, she asks him his real name. In the hands of two good actors, it’s an interesting relationship for a beat or two.

Of course, Bad belongs on the road, even with a beat-up truck and a busted leg. In another almost-interesting setup, Bad must get back to shadowing the tour of Tommy Sweet, a younger, sexier singer who learned the trade from Bad and has made millions of dollars recording and performing Bad’s songs. Bad talks about Sweet like a foil that will be his undoing, but when he finally shows up, the most affecting thing about him is the actor cast in the role (not giving up that one in case anybody’s lucky enough to be in the dark).

I suppose alcoholics and outsiders can be tedious and so we might as well call it a halfway-honest portrait. Of course, the point where Bad bottoms out and makes his crucial decision to sober up is about as blurrily defined as his syntax. The parade of bad decisions is so poorly put together and episodic in construction that when he finally wakes up in his underwear and submits to rehabilitation it seems to come out of nowhere. It’s a reversal especially lazy in construction for being a supposed crux in the story.

If the Golden Globe and the SAG Award are any indication, Kate Winslet will be handing Bridges an Oscar in a little over a month. This Academy Award will be of the 'unofficial lifetime achievement' variety, bestowed upon beloved sexagenarians that have been nominated four times already without a win. As Bridges himself quipped in his acceptance speech at the Globes, "You're really screwing up my under-appreciated status, here." As for successful Oscar campaigns that earn fallacious merit, I suppose there are far worse things that can happen on Oscar Night than to recognize Jeff Bridges.

This review appeared in a slightly different form in The Montague Reporter. Support your print media while you still can!

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