Crazy Heart an Entertaining, Unoriginal Redemption Story

Juli Thanki | January 11th, 2010

crazy-heartWhen we first encounter the protagonist of Crazy Heart, he’s emptying a milk jug full of his own piss in a bowling alley parking lot. Meet Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges), former country star and current broke-down 57-year old with a heart of gold (and too little blood in his alcohol stream, if the multiple shots of him vomiting into various receptacles are any evidence).

Blake hauls around the country in a ’78 Suburban, playing any dive that’ll host him, his “Bad’s Boys” mates long replaced by a series of pickup bands. It’s through one of these groups that he meets Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a local journalist and single mother to towheaded scamp Buddy. Jean’s looking to interview Bad for the Santa Fe newspaper, so she drops in on his motel room, finding a towel-clad Blake eating takeout and watching telenovelas. If the two leads were played by Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, there’d be some sort of wacky misunderstanding followed by realization of mutual attraction but they’re not, so one Lefty Frizzell name drop (and a bottle of whiskey) is all that’s needed for the pair to make a connection.

Writer/director Scott Cooper then condenses about 80 pages of text (the movie is adapted from author Thomas Cobb’s 1989 novel Crazy Heart) into just a few minutes of film; in no time at all, Bad Blake is making breakfast for Buddy and Jean and hosting them at his Texas home. Meanwhile, Jean seems to have no problem with the shady ethical practice of having sex with one’s interview subject, who also happens to be an alcoholic 25 years her senior who’s got puke in his beard.

As Blake travels the Southwest, relying on freebies from liquor store owners and busted groupies, former Bad’s Boys sideman Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell) has hit the big time, sporting a ponytail and earrings while playing to thousands. He hasn’t forgotten his old boss though, and soon Bad is opening for Sweet. Thus begins part two of the film’s redemption storyline. We’ve all seen it before, but that doesn’t make it any less interesting, thanks to some excellent performances.

Jeff Bridges, who embodies Bad Blake so thoroughly that you can almost smell the booze and stale cigarettes, is a shoo-in for an Oscar nod, while Maggie Gyllenhaal imbues Jean with shy charm. Although Colin Farrell is good as Blake’s Keith Urbanesque former protégé, he doesn’t quite lose himself in his character the way Bridges and Gyllenhaal do, so it’s a little difficult to tamp down the “hey, it’s Colin Farrell!” feeling every time he appears onscreen.

Apart from Bridges, the star of Crazy Heart is its soundtrack. T-Bone Burnett and the late Stephen Bruton (whose career provided some inspiration for Bridges’ portrayal of Bad Blake, according to the Wall Street Journal) did an incredible job; “Fallin’ & Flyin’” and “I Don’t Know” sound as though they’ve been kicking around jukeboxes for some time. Ryan Bingham, who also appears in the film as frontman of Bad’s bowling alley band, performs admirably on a pair of tracks, and Bridges and Farrell are no slouches either. In addition to those well-written, ably-performed originals, Buck Owens, The Louvin Brothers, and a handful of others show up on the soundtrack.

The film stays pretty faithful to Cobb’s work for approximately 107 of its 112 minutes, but the movie’s ending is the polar opposite of the novel’s. There’s an entire storyline featuring Bad’s estranged son that the film drops entirely, probably for time constraints. Other than that, this is an upper-tier book-to-movie transformation. Cooper, in his directorial debut, does a fine job; since Crazy Heart is already generating Oscar buzz, it’ll be interesting to see where he goes from here.

Several reviews have mentioned that Crazy Heart is simply The Wrestler set to pedal steel. Perhaps, but anyone who loves country music owes it to him or herself to check out Crazy Heart in either format. Because the real love story isn’t between Bad and Jean; it’s between Bad and his music.

  1. Kelly
    January 11, 2010 at 12:19 pm

    I really want to see this. I love the soundtrack. This will be the first time I have listened to a film’s soundtrack before seeing the movie itself…I wonder if that’ll make me enjoy it more or less??

  2. Ben Milam
    January 11, 2010 at 12:28 pm

    i was one of the final three kids that producers and casting directors considered for the role of sunny in the first version of this movie (tender mercies). been waiting too see this film since i started hearing about it back in the fall. tales of redemption always seem to rope me in.

  3. Leeann Ward
    January 11, 2010 at 2:11 pm

    This reminds me that I’ve got a book to buy. And a soundtrack to listen to. Looking forward to checking out this movie if it ever comes my wayor when it’s released on DVD.

  4. Barry Mazor
    January 11, 2010 at 3:17 pm

    The book, btw, is said to have been been inspired in part by the later years of the late Hank Thompson.

  5. Saving Country Music
    January 11, 2010 at 5:11 pm

    Excellent review.

  6. Rick
    January 11, 2010 at 7:28 pm

    Well I remember reading that the book’s author saw Hank Thompson perform in the 1980′s at a bowling alley but I sure hope that’s the only thing Hank and the fictional Bad Blake had in common! Yikes! (lol)

    Just think, if Bad had also been on a bus journey back to his childhood home the film could have aped both Tender Mercies and A Trip To Bountiful! That would have been just freakin’ awesome…

  7. stormy
    January 11, 2010 at 8:29 pm

    I wanted to see this Friday, but it was sold out so I had to go see The Imaginarium of Dr. Pernassas instead. I still want to see this movie, but I also want to move into Terry Gilliam’s brain. It would be so happy, pretty and trippy in there.

  8. stormy
    January 17, 2010 at 3:39 pm

    I was impressed that both Bridges and Farrell did their own vocals on the project (or, at least, are credited with the vocals on the soundtrack). My only real disappointment with the film was realizing that Robert Duval has started playing Robert Duval in all of his movies.

    As far as the contest of the Cranky Old Guy Finds Redemption In Younger Woman movie, I would place this firmly between The Wrestler (worst) and Grand Torino (best). I think Grand Torino did itself a favor by not having a romantic subplot because the relationship between Walt and Sue was much more stright foward and fitted impecably with the redemption arc. There is a redemption arc for the female characters in The Wrestler and Crazy Heart, but it is underdeveloped for both characters. Its fairly easy to see Cassidy’s parrallels to Randy in The Wrestler and Marissa Tomei sold the hell out of that role, so it worked there. It works, barely, in Crazy Heart because I can understand why Jean would want a relationship with someone who seemed, at first, to be good with her son. And if I squinted really hard at the scene where she yells at Bad, I could see a history of dating addicts and getting burned, but I had to build a lot of that character in my head.

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