Crazy Heart, an amiable on-the-road-again yarn, showcases a singing and strumming Jeff Bridges to great, grizzled effect. Bridges plays Bad Blake, a past-his-prime, whiskey-guzzling singer-songwriter whose near-legendary status in country-music circles is no substitute for a regular paycheck. As the movie opens, he’s arriving for a gig with a pick-up band at a bowling alley in Pueblo, Colorado, where he has something of an epiphany that his career isn’t going exactly the way he had planned. (Given that I grew up in Pueblo, I found this hilarious, even though the location doesn’t look or feel anything like the real town.)
A full-on alcoholic chain smoker, Blake is on course to take up early residency in a pine box — when he jacks up his ankle by rolling his Chevy off the highway, the attending doctor assures him that his injuries are the least of his problems. Lucky for him, there are a couple of positive influences left in his life — the respect and gratitude of one-time sideman Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), and the love of a good woman, the journalist Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal). The question, as Blake’s story proceeds, is how badly he’ll fuck up, and whether or not he’ll be able to pick up the pieces and get his life back together.
There’s nothing at all new here, but what Crazy Heart has going for it is a bit of authenticity. For one thing, the film makes good use of locations in New Mexico and Texas to get the flavor of life on the open prairie, where it butts up against the Rocky Mountains. For another, Bridges really sings — Farrell, too — and the film’s frequent scenes of live performance look and sound like the real deal. Importantly, Bridges expertly brings what could have been a very cartoonish character into the realm of the plausible, cutting Blake’s reckless behavior and standoffishness with real warmth and charm, as well as that crucial sense of gruff poetry.
Unfortunately, there’s something very off-balance about the whole thing. Gyllenhaal’s single-mom is too much of a fantasy girl, and Blake’s journey back from the dark side of addiction and general disconsolance happens so quickly and easily that it feels unearned. Also, Robert Duvall shows up late in the picture in a completely underdeveloped role that amounts to little more than an extended cameo. I’m not familiar with the source material, a novel by Thomas Cobb, but it feels like some difficult decisions may have been made in the adaptation process that threw the structure of the story out of whack. Still, Bridges fans — and, come on, who isn’t? — will find it worth a look.