Sunday, February 21, 2010

Review - Crazy Heart

Basing a whole movie around a single performance is an approach that offers both rewards and pitfalls. On the one hand, first-time filmmaker Scott Cooper has drawn a truly great performance out of the ever-wonderful Jeff Bridges, whose display in Crazy Heart is as rich and deep a piece of acting as you're likely to see this year. On the other hand, the superlative lead performance shows up the rest of the movie for what it is: underwritten, hackneyed and sentimental. Bridges' acting is the film's sole source of energy and resonance, and it ultimately becomes the film's raison d'être. This is a big performance being put to the service of a very small movie.

Not much happens in Crazy Heart, but that's not necessarily a criticism. In fact, the film's problems tend to occur when Cooper tries to inject a plot into a film that's doing just fine without one. The opening hour simply allows us to watch country singer "Bad" Blake as he drunkenly stumbles his way from one low-rent gig to another, rousing himself from an alcoholic stupor just long enough to perform in another grubby bar or bowling alley. The atmosphere in these sequences is lively and authentic, and Cooper's roving camera captures both the spark of Bridges' musical performances and the enjoyment of his small but fervent crowd – even if Blake occasionally has to rush off stage mid-song to throw up in a back alley. Although he prides himself on never missing a gig ("I've played sick, drunk, divorced and on the run"), Blake is a mess, and the film allows him to reach rock-bottom before giving him his shot at redemption.

Crazy Heart is at its best when Cooper allows the star to drive the film at his own pace. Other actors come into Bridges' orbit occasionally, but none of them feel as real as the lead, whose characterisation displays the charisma and uncanny decision-making that has defined his career. Every physical aspect of his performance – the voice, the walk, the gestures – feels like it has come from within Bad Blake, as a natural expression of the character. It's a completely lived-in and utterly engaging turn, and perhaps the only problem with it is the fact that none of the supporting actors can come close to matching up. Maggie Gyllenhaal, Colin Farrell and Robert Duvall do fine work in their small roles – Duvall, in particular, is a treat – but they drift in and out of the film without really making an impact. The nature of the resentment that lies between Blake and Farrell's Tommy Sweet, a onetime protégé who's now a huge star, is ill-defined, and Gyllenhaal's Jean is nothing more than a thin foil. It's hard to understand why she hooks up with Blake and allows this drunk into her life, and her son's life, so easily, and she seems to exist solely as a catalyst for Blake's reawakening.

The clichéd and lazy manner in which Cooper enacts that reawakening is disappointing beyond belief. There's a heavily signposted missing-kid drama that's completely lacking in tension, and when Blake decides he wants to clean up his act, it seems to take nothing more than one Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and a few cups of coffee. There's a great scene early in the film, when Blake returns to Jean's house having spent the day with her son, and as soon as he has offloaded the boy he races into another room to swig from his hip flask; the desperate need of the alcoholic displayed in a stark manner. Once he has been through rehab, however, he seems to take to sobriety without any semblance of struggle – what gives? Bridges portrayal of Bad Blake is too honest and deeply felt to be short-changed by such cheap plot elements. The whole second half of the movie follows its formulaic template so steadfastly it suffocates the air of spontaneity and realism that made the film's opening hour so watchable, and it continues to make predictable choices right down to the trite closing scene, with Cooper having discarded a seemingly perfect final shot just moments earlier. Crazy Heart will win Jeff Bridges an Oscar – and who could begrudge such an honour for this great actor? – but it is a performance that deserves to be part of a better movie.