The Twilight Zone was a launchpad for countless careers—William Shatner, Burgess Meredith, Richard Matheson—but my personal favorite has always been Jack Klugman. The wiry middle-aged man always portrayed beat-down underdogs stuck in realities where they didn’t quite fit. He played a failed suicidal musician washed up before his career ever took off (A Passage for Trumpet), a self-loathing bookie whose only pride was his soon-to-be-deceased-son (In Praise of Pip), and a pool champion who reached the pinnacle of his sport—could excel no further without challenging deceased legends (A Game of Pool). Scott Cooper’s directorial debut, Crazy Heart, feels much in the same vein as these classic episodes; like Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler from last year, Cooper’s film explores a man past his prime and the vices that support him—seeks to establish the price at which men are willing to sacrifice their reputation and past fame, if such a cost exists at all. Unfortunately, Crazy Heart comes closely on the heels of Aronofsky’s work, which it parallels by design, and is likely to be viewed as derivative and less accomplished.
The story follows Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges), a forgotten country legend struggling to make ends meet by running low-end music circuits. We first meet Blake arriving for a show at some nameless Arizona Bowling alley where he eventually connects with Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal) a journalist with whom, as the generic PR release informs us, he “can’t help but reach for salvation” from his addictions to booze and sex. Though occassionally crippling him over the toilet, Bridges makes drunk, sexed-up Bad feel damn cool; he may fall asleep at the wheel and suffer occassional blackouts, but the threat of his vices never surpass the awesomeness of his character, so much that he appears compromised only after making a commitment to sobriety. One wonders if it’s Cooper’s writing or Bridges’s acting that makes this transformation troublesome. Sure, we’re supposed to feel sorry for Bad following his abandonment, but Bridges infuses his character with such charm that it’s difficult to admit we want him to change at all, especially when cast alongside Maggie Gyllenhaal’s supermom. Echoing her real-life feminist agenda, Gyllenhaal handles Craddock with a bland mixture of elegance and over-protective-matronly-love, walking the line between boring and bi-polar; this isn’t to say her performance is bad—simply that Bridges upstages her in the best way possible, dry-heaving and quipping lines like “If you found out your sister was turning tricks, you’da already booked her across the valley the whole week” till the movie’s close. Most surprisingly of all, newcomer and youth Jack Nation gives the most realistic depiction of a child I’ve seen since Where The Wild Things Are. As Cooper himself states, I hope this kid never acts again, if only so he doesn’t pick up any annoying acting habits; his role feels pure and child-like.
Crazy Heart’s score is already garnering national attention, with “The Weary Kind” nominated for a Critic’s Choice Award for Best Song and many speculating on its candidacy for best score in the 2010 Oscar season. The first half of the film relies heavily on performance scenes—no less than two full-length songs and three performances are given by Bad in the first hour. This spectacle is unfortunate for viewers like myself, who finds country music abrasive and wholly unenjoyable—each song jarred me out of the film; they do serve a purpose in establishing him as a credible country musician, however. Both Bridges and Cooper stated they wanted the stage to act as Bad’s single refuge from his struggles, however small it may be; his character feels electric and free while performing, yet is never without of his addictions. It’s never clear whether alcohol or act drives him, and only later, when substance abuse is replaced with his infatuation for Jean, is it suggested that Bad’s ecstacy derives from the art rather than vice.
This is the poor man’s The Wrestler; it lacks the ambiguity and dramatic tension of Aronofsky’s work, but isn’t without its own merits. The film is an achievement on its own legs—between the professionally written music and Jeff Bridges’ ace performance, it’s a hint of Scott Cooper’s capabilities as an up-and-coming director. The only difficulty audiences may have is ridding themselves of the memory of the very similar, and much greater, film distributed almost exactly one year ago today.