Listen to My Interview with First-time Director Scott Cooper
There is Oscar buzz about Jeff Bridges’ performance in “Crazy Heart” (opening January 8 at Landmark’s Hillcrest Cinemas) and maybe this time he’ll finally bring one home. You can also listen to my interview with writer-director Scott Cooper.
Jeff Bridges isn’t generally recognized for his singing although he did do “The Fabulous Baker Boys.” But what he is known for is his amazing ability to get under the skin of a character. Even in an uneven work like last year’s “The Men Who Stare at Goats,” he etched a finely detailed, humorous, and touching performance as a kind of new age soldier. Heck he was even great just doing the voice for the laidback penguin version of The Dude in “Surf’s Up.”
In “Crazy Heart,” Bridges plays Bad Blake, your classic broken-down, hard-living country music singer. Like so many before him, he’s had too many women, too many failed marriages, too many drinks, and too many years on the road. But he’s getting on in years and may finally be coming to the realization that something’s gotta change or else something’s gonna give. Provoking potential change for the good is a journalist –considerably his junior -- named Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and her young son. They hold out a shot at redemption but Blake, as usual, may be his own worst enemy.
“Crazy Heart” serves up the kind of country music melodrama that we’ve seen many times before but the difference is that it feels more authentic and mostly eschews the Hollywood gloss and cliché of such bio-pics as “Sweet Dreams” and “Walk the Line.” In my interview with Scott Cooper, he mentioned devouring movies from the 70s – from the likes of Terence Malick, Robert Altman, and such – in order to make a film that is more about character than plot. And he succeeds.
Bridges’ performance is the core of this film and Cooper gives him plenty of space and time to develop a character that’s compelling and more nuanced than most. Bridges is such an easy presence on screen that you don’t always appreciate the work because the performances seem so genuine and natural. They flow gracefully and never hit a false note so it doesn’t seem like he’s working very hard, as if he’s just being himself. But the range of roles he’s played – from “Last Picture Show” to “Winter Kills” to “Fearless” to “The Big Lebowski” – is so diverse that they can’t all be Bridges just playing himself. There’s a lot of craft going on but he just doesn’t make us aware of it. Bridges should have won the Oscar for “The Big Lebowski,” but if he gets it for “Crazy Heart” it will be well deserved. His Bad Blake is a wreck of a man but one who still wins our sympathy and compassion. He’s a man who has been a victim of his own bad choices and he finds redemption on his own as well.
Cooper surrounds Bridges with a cast of talented actors that includes Robert Duvall, Gyllenhaal, and a surprising Colin Farrell as Blake’s protégé who surpasses him in popularity. The film has a surface familiarity in terms of Blake being a country star who lives a hard life that seems copied from one of his songs but Cooper has the events play out with more naturalism than we usually get and thankfully less melodrama.
As a first time director, Cooper doesn’t dazzle us with style but he proves a conscientious craftsman who puts his actors first. And that’s what you might expect from someone who comes to directing from acting. When I spoke with him he said he wanted the directing to be almost “invisible,” and that’s not something you generally hear since so many young directors want to be in your face with style to burn as they try to emulate filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino. But Cooper creates a film that is willing to take its time as it observes the people in its story. We feel like we come to know Blake and understand what makes him tick, and even if he feels like a familiar type of character, Bridges and Cooper make him very credible and real.
“Crazy Heart” (rated R for language and brief sexuality) is a commendable first outing for Cooper, and another top-notch performance for Bridges. The tag line for the film says: “The harder the life, the sweeter the song.” And that pretty much sums it up. Although maybe it should say the more "bittersweet" the song.
Companion viewing: “The Big Lebowski,” “Tender Mercies,” “Last Picture Show,” “The Fabulous Baker Boys”