You have to give it up for Jeff Bridges, who delivers a fearless performance as circling-the-drain country singer Bad Blake in Crazy Heart. The actor sacrifices all vanity in his portrayal, raising the bar of disgust with each passing scene. When we first meet Bad, he's stumbling pants-undone out of his rusted truck after a long drive. The singer stumbles into the venue of his latest gig — a rundown bowling alley — ambles up to the bar and asks for a drink. Sorry Bad, your manager called ahead and said no booze. Shaking and broke, Bad makes his way to the local liquor store. Good thing the guy working the counter is a fan.
Bad Blake was a talented songwriter back in the day, before all the alcohol and women and marriages and the road took their pound of flesh. Bridges plays him as a broken-down echo of his former self, wandering off stage during the bowling alley gig to go puke in a garbage can out back. (Extra points for diving in after your sunglasses, Bad.) It's cool, though; Bad's a country legend who still manages to get lucky at the end of the night. OK, maybe "lucky" isn't the right word for it.
It's not that there's no hope for the guy; it's just that Bad is too drunk to realize he's not quite dead yet. He's got real talent and a manager he enjoys cursing out over the phone — though his skills and the manager's patience are starting to fade as the alcoholism takes over. But Bad can still rally, like he does for a much livelier bar gig. Working with real musicians, he owns the room with his well-known tunes (uniformly excellent and written for the screen by Stephen Bruton and T-Bone Burnett) and we get our first inkling that this guy has some depth.
It's also around the bar gig that Bad is interviewed by a local newspaper reporter (Maggie Gyllenhaal). The two share an enlightening pre-show conversation in his hotel room before things get too personal (she asks if he's got kids) and he cuts off the interview prematurely. They pick it up later, though, and as the reporter finds out more about the singer the relationship becomes physical. Could Bad have finally found the redemption he's been looking for?
That's right: The foul mountain of a man beds the hot, young reporter and they fall in love. It was at this point that I began to hear my wife's voice in my head, ranting about how Crazy Heart was another one of those ridiculous Hollywood fantasies where a pretty young thing falls for a guy 30 years her senior and no one thinks it absurd. Shockingly, it's not that at all. Instead, Crazy Heart is a smart movie, and this central relationship is allowed to unfold in what I thought was as honest a way possible. This is a credit to both Bridges and Gyllenhaal, who turn what could have been a farce (they're mismatched in every possible way) into something powerful and believable.
Crazy Heart is the work of first-time director Scott Cooper, and he consistently finds just the right note in each scene. As Bad Blake bottoms out and slowly begins to rise from the near-dead, Crazy Heart never takes a wrong turn into melodrama or sappiness. Instead, Cooper allows his characters to try and fail, to learn and grow, and to make hard choices that feel real in their difficulty and their outcomes. In the end, if you had told me Bad Blake was a real guy and Crazy Heart was based on a true story, I would have believed it.
Which brings me back to Jeff Bridges, for whom this performance represents a career highlight. Bridges nails a complex combination of Bad Blake's repulsive physicality and deep soulfulness. It's great work from an actor who has done it for years (Fabulous Baker Boys, Fearless, The Big Lebowski, etc.) but never been better. Bridges is sure to get an Oscar nod for his work here, and a win would be well deserved. Bad Blake is an indelible screen creation, and one that should be remembered as long as Lebowski's Dude.