Crazy Heart opens Friday in select theaters
"A recovering alcoholic country music singer/ songwriter seeks to turn his life around through his relationship with a young woman and her son."
Older, discerning filmgoers will recognize this synopsis of Tender Mercies, the 1983 Horton Foote-penned film that gave Robert Duvall his only Oscar. More than a quarter-century later, cinematic history is poised to repeat itself with Crazy Heart, a film with the same premise—and a supporting turn by Duvall, for Pete's sake—that is likely to give the just-nominated Jeff Bridges his first Oscar.
More broadly, Crazy Heart rehashes the general theme of the down-and-out has-been looking for both personal and professional redemption. But its most glaring similarity with the likes of True Grit, Million Dollar Baby, The Wrestler and yes, Tender Mercies is their ideation of the Jungian archetype of the Wise Old Man, an authority/ father figure and spiritual guide that manifests itself in many forms. For women, the Old Man represents the masculine unconscious. Conversely, one facet of the Old Man is the feminine components of the psyche.
Thus, the Wise Old Man is often accompanied in literature by a young girl, personifying the melding of Logos and Eros (Meaning and Life). With the lone exception of The Wrestler, in which the two main characters were closer in age, this is true of all the films mentioned above. (As it happens, Bridges is slated to star in an upcoming Coen Brothers remake of True Grit.)
In Crazy Heart, middle-aged boozy crooner "Bad" Blake (Bridges) endures a solitary life of faded glory. Once famous, Bad drives his beat-up pickup from one dustbowl to another, staying in cheap motels and grinding out gigs in seedy bars and bowling allies. Bad's salvation begins once he launches a romantic relationship with the much younger Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal), an aspiring journalist and divorcée raising her 4-year-old son.
Besides its derivative storyline, this directorial debut from co-screenwriter Scott Cooper suffers from a lack of genuine chemistry between its lead actors. Beyond their distracting age difference (28 years), Gyllenhaal—long an indie darling—has gradually devolved her once accomplished acting style into a collection of tics and mannerisms, suggesting a self-indulgence that demands roles and scenes adapt to her method instead of the other way around (this week, Gyllenhaal received a Best Supporting Actress nomination).
Conflict resolution comes easy, like speed bumps along the route to a rather anticlimactic finish line. Bad's sobriety is only an AA meeting montage away. His financial woes instantly vanish once he swallows his pride and starts composing songs again for his former protégé, country music star Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), who stands ready to help his erstwhile mentor. And when Bad visits a bar and loses track of Jean's son, it only takes a few anxious moments for the boy to summarily turn up and Jean's ire to subside, her outrage massively tempered by the fact that she lets an alcoholic scalawag babysit her son in the first place.
Still, even when Bad is at his baddest, he never fully loses his lovable Lebowski-esque charm. While Crazy Heart is the cinematic equivalent of a country-standard cover band, Bridges' terrific solo act is the showstopper. The film is transparently and unabashedly designed as a vehicle for his overdue Oscar, and, frankly, that's a goal worth endorsing.