Oscar worthy, indeed

Posted: Thursday, March 11, 2010

'Crazy Heart'

Butcher's Run Films

1 hour, 52 minutes

There is a certain type of "old timer" ubiquitous to Arizona, New Mexico, and West Texas. Worn at the edges, slow-moving, but with constant calculation going on behind their eyes. These guys have worked their entire lives -- even wrecking that life had to be worked at, and you can always tell time has eaten away at them. Sometimes they're good, sometimes they're bad, but you see them portrayed in movies about the area constantly.

Being from the West, originally, I find it easy to pick out performances that are less than authentic. So often, this character is done either too broad or too sly or without any real understanding -- I see it all the time. I imagine people from New Jersey or Boston or Australia, for that matter, have the same complaint. On the other hand, occasionally someone gets it right, and when that happens it suddenly feels like you're watching someone you know right up on screen.

Robert Duvall nearly always gets it right. Tommy Lee Jones, as well. And this week, Jeff Bridges joined their ranks giving the finest performance of his long career in the beautiful and moving "Crazy Heart."

Bridges plays "Bad" Blake, a washed-up country singer whose salad days are long past. Though he was a star decades ago, we meet up with him headlining a bowling alley gig in a small New Mexico town. He's on the road -- a routine known well to struggling performers of all varieties. Long drives, cheap motels, too little money, then do it all over again when you wake up. Bad has no entourage, no roadies, no back-up of any kind. He has a run-down suburban, a guitar, and an old amp. He has a routine for whatever one-horse town and tiny bar he's currently booked at. Check in, drop off the gear, and then get a bottle of whisky to crawl into until showtime. Bad can still perform with the best of them, but this feels more like a career, and a life, that is quickly running out of steam.

Hanging like a dark cloud over his head is the super-stardom of his former protg, Tommy Sweet, played by Colin Farrell. All Bad can see is what he doesn't have, what he once was, and what he won't be again. A two-night show in Santa Fe, however, changes everything. Enter Jean Craddock, a small-town reporter with a love of music, and especially for the work of Bad Blake. That Jean and Bad, at least a quarter-century off in age, fall for each other may seem unlikely, but a combination of excellent writing and acting make it believable. Jean, and the love of her 6-year old son Buddy, put Bad on the road to recovery, but it's an uphill battle with no guarantees that the singer's destructive lifestyle won't bring everything crashing down around them all.

"Crazy Heart" is easily the best movie I've seen this year, and one of the best I've seen in a long time. I was disappointed that it was only nominated for a few awards, most notably in acting categories, but I shouldn't be surprised. This is primarily a performance driven film, not a visual spectacle of any kind, nor does it feature particularly showy writing. "Crazy Heart" keeps it simple, all the while telling a very moving story.

Speaking of the performances, Jeff Bridges, while definitely the best actor in the film, is only one of a fine ensemble cast. Colin Farrell makes an unlikely appearance as country star, Tommy Sweet, and true to Farrell's reputation, completely buries his thick Irish accent under a subtle and completely believable western drawl. He even manages to sing in it. My favorite supporting character, though, is the Oscar-nominated Maggie Gyllenhaal, who is luminous as Jean. Just about everything I see this actress in is elevated by her presence, and this movie is no exception. She has an openness and a kindness about her that give any character she plays an incredible accessibility. Yes, I may have a secret crush on Maggie Gyllenhaal.

Also always good is Robert Duvall, who plays a small role as one of Bad Blake's oldest and only friends. Duvall, it's interesting to note, also played a broken down country singer in 1983's "Tender Mercies." And, like Jeff Bridges, won the only Oscar of his career (to date), for that role.

I have to imagine including Duvall in this film was a nod to "Mercies," though his casting doesn't feel in any way like a stunt.

I can't say enough about Bridges' performance as Bad Blake. He is, at times, grotesque, profane, and hard to look at. At other times he pulls himself together and it's hard to take your eyes off him. His winning the Academy Award seemed like a foregone conclusion, but it irritates me to hear people say that he won simply because it was "his time." Sure he's been nominated plenty before without a win, but to suggest that it was simply his turn at the podium overlooks the genius of his acting in this film. Bad Blake got to the point in his life where we meet him via a lifetime of hard living. Similarly, Bridges has reached this point in his career though a lifetime of hard work. Yes, it was his turn, but only because he put everything he had into the role of his life. How many other actors can say the same?

Grade: A+

"Crazy Heart" is rated R for language brief sexuality, and adult situations.

Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.

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