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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Jeff Bridges gives a career highlight performance as a washed up country singer who finds love with journalist Maggie Gyllenhaal in Crazy Heart
Jeff Bridges has one of the most contradictory reputations of any actor working today. By most accounts, he's considered perhaps our most underrated of actors, yet at the same time, everyone respects him and he's been nominated for multiple Oscars. I think a lot of the confusion stems from the fact that Bridges disappears so fully into his characters that you forget you're watching a performance. He is not a "showy" actor, nor is he one to play the typical Hollywood movie star game. When people list their favorite actors, he's more likely not to come to mind for these reasons. I know this from personal experience: whenever I've been asked to list my favorites, I have traditionally failed to include Bridges, despite the fact that he has starred in three of my all-time favorite movies (The Last Picture Show, Seabiscuit, and The Big Lebowski). The new Crazy Heart has reminded me that I must recognize the man when making such lists, and my strong suspicion is that it will have a similar effect for many other viewers.

Bridges plays Bad Blake, a washed-up (but still beloved by many) country music singer who's been reduced to playing small town watering holes and bowling alleys. Bad is himself a drunk, not adverse to stepping off stage long enough to throw up after a particularly bad bender. In many ways, we sense that he doesn't mind this life so much (drinking heavily and bedding the occasional fan seems right up his alley) but he also yearns for a little more industry respect. Bad does have one potential leg up in the business, but he refuses to take it: his former protégé Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell) is hot in the business and wants to write new songs and possibly record with Bad. The elder singer stubbornly refuses.

One day, while setting up a gig in a small-town bar, Bad's rent-a-piano-player asks if his journalist niece could interview him. Bad agrees. Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is younger, but knows her old-time country music like the back of her own hand. She's a single mom, a curious inquisitor, and a sympathetic ear. Bad starts to fall for her. He also becomes attached to her son. Suddenly, he can envision himself doing something other than driving a battered pickup truck from town to town. It's a known fact that many country songs (particularly vintage ones) are about drinkin' and romancin' and screwin' everything up. Bad embodies this idea, and Jean eventually realizes that Bad Blake the Music Legend has become inseparable from Bad Blake the Man. What Bad does and why he does it constitutes the third act of Crazy Heart, which thankfully does not go down the predictable roads we think it might.

Shortly before its release, Roger Ebert posted a message on Twitter saying that Crazy Heart is "this year's Wrestler." The comparison is apt. Both are about washed up former superstars in their fields. Both are about men who have mucked up their marriages, alienated their children, and turned to acts of self-destruction while still trying to delude themselves into thinking they can hit the big time again. The way Bad Blake resolves things within himself is different from the way Randy "The Ram" Robinson did, though. We sense that Bad is a little smarter. You can't sing all those depressing country music songs and not understand something about human nature.

This is an extraordinary role for Jeff Bridges. As an actor with little apparent vanity, he has no problem showing us Bad's hard-living physical appearance and weary attitude. Dirty, sweaty, and unkempt, the actor embraces his character's situation and makes us feel the kind of desperate lifestyle that Bad has been reduced to keeping. Because that desperation is so palpable, we actively root for him to get his act together, professionally and personally. It takes a skilled actor to make us care about someone so self-defeating as Bad Blake. Bridges shows us the kind, decent man who still resides somewhere underneath the tarnished image and the alcoholic haze.

He sings well, too, and so does Colin Farrell. Both perform their own songs. I've never liked country music, but these tunes are catchy. Notice the character Farrell plays. Tommy Sweet is a big star, yet not too big to try to reach out to his one-time mentor. For him, the country scene is just that - a scene. He doesn't feel the need to live out the stereotypical image, and he wants Bad to see this as an option too. There's a terrific scene where Bad agrees to open for Tommy, and the star steps out unexpectedly to duet with his hero. We know Tommy has only the best intentions, but when it comes time to return the favor, Bad balks. The way the movie contrasts the styles of these two men is like a catchy song hook, drawing us in, making us want more.

The Maggie Gyllenhaal character is not as well developed, but I think that may, to some degree, be on purpose. We see Jean through Bad's eyes. He views her as an inspiration - a reason to straighten up, to get clean. He can't do it for himself, but he might be able to do it for her or for the kid. Gyllenhaal therefore has a tricky role to play, and she does it well. Without giving anything away, late in the film Jean begins to break through the image Bad is unknowingly projecting onto her. She displays a willingness to be something other than the "stand by your man" kind of woman he expects. She'll kick his ass when necessary. It is in these scenes that the actress really floors you.

In many ways, Crazy Heart is about a guy who has taken the country image to heart. As in rap music, there's a type of credibility you earn for living the hard life you sing about. Bad Blake has at some point decided that he needs to follow that path of screwing up everything he touches, just so he knows what he's singing about. Writer/director Scott Cooper shows, with great subtlety, how Bad comes to wonder if happiness really is antithetical to the kind of music he performs. I cited Ebert's comparison to The Wrestler earlier, but there's no doubt that the movie also belongs in the same family as country music dramas such as Clint Eastwood's Honkytonk Man or Tender Mercies (starring Robert Duvall, who also appears here as a sympathetic bartender).

Crazy Heart is more of a character study than a plot-driven film, but we've got a genuinely compelling character to examine here. Coupled with strong performances and good tunes, it is a pleasant last-minute surprise in the movie year.

( 1/2 out of four)

Crazy Heart is rated R for language and brief sexuality. The running time is 1 hour and 46 minutes.

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