A familiar story, told with sublimity

Posted: January 15, 2010

Hand the Oscar to Jeff Bridges right now, and let's be done with it.

In Crazy Heart, a sublime American indie from writer/director Scott Cooper, Bridges is Bad Blake, a whiskey-soaked onetime country legend who still zags around the Southwest in his beat-up Chevy Suburban - with an empty gallon jug to pee in and a book of cheat sheets to hand to his pickup bands.

As Crazy Heart opens, Bridges' Blake is zipping his fly and stumbling into the night's venue, a nowheresville bowling alley with a stage tucked in one corner.

He can play all the free games he wants, the lanes' owner, a longtime fan, tells Blake, but his manager had already phoned with explicit instructions - no bar tab.

Doesn't matter, though. The liquor store proprietor down the street recognizes his hero and hands him a bottle. Midway through that night's set, Blake is puking into a garbage can.

Despite the familiar story line - the alcoholic artist looking for redemption, and maybe an AA meeting to help him get there - Crazy Heart is the real thing, and a real gem. Bridges, an actor who makes it look effortless - he slips into his characters like he's just putting on a fresh shirt - has been handed the role of his career. (And for a guy who's already played the Dude, a Fabulous Baker Boy, a Starman, and car builder Preston Tucker, that's saying a lot.)

Looking a little like Kris Kristofferson but sounding a tad less croaky (Bridges does his own singing), the actor finds the heart and soul of this broke-down man. But not so broke he can't be reached by a glimmer of light - by way of a newspaper writer and Bad Blake aficionado, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal - that makes him think maybe he's got some life left in him. And even another song or two.

Speaking of songs, a movie about a guy renowned for his country classics wouldn't be worth much if the songs didn't sound like classics, and in Crazy Heart they do. Written by T Bone Burnett, Ryan Bingham, and the late Stephen Bruton, "Fallin' & Flyin' " (with the line: "Funny how fallin' feels like flyin' - for a little while"), "Somebody Else," "I Don't Know," and "The Weary Kind" could easily find themselves on the Billboard charts. And in an uncredited turn, Colin Farrell shows up as a Toby Keith-like star who mentored under Blake and now packs arenas with a repertoire of Blake's old tunes. The Irish actor, talkin' in a dust-bowl drawl, his hair pulled back in a ponytail, sings the heck out of those songs, too.

Gyllenhaal's Jean, a single mother with a history of ill-advised relationships, can't quite stop herself from falling into this new one with Blake. At first, things go well. Blake takes to Jean's young son, teaching him how to make buttermilk biscuits and playing with him in the park. But when Jean and her boy travel from Santa Fe to Blake's unkempt bungalow in Houston, the vision of a happy new family turns dark, and almost tragic.

Robert Duvall, who starred in the not-dissimilar 1983 Oscar-winner Tender Mercies (an alcoholic, washed-up country singer), passes the baton to Bridges, and passes him a shot glass, playing a friendly barkeep who watches over his stuporous pal. There's a beautiful scene in which the two men go fishing and Duvall, casting a line lazily into the still water, starts crooning a ditty called "Live Forever." (Stay through the end credits for a sweet encore.)

It's a simple, serene moment that feels sprung from real life. Crazy Heart feels that way from beginning to end.

Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/onmovies/.

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