Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Falling and Flying

(Reprinted from shaking like a mountain)
Crazy Heart
By Scott Duhamel

As the properly revered American cinema of the 70’s fades further into our collective memories, as the indie film revolt of the recent past twists and snaps into something altogether different, as the ever frightening Rise of the Hack Auteurs continues to flourish, and, as the movie brat directorial generation teeter into old age, oblivion, or rusty-but-venerated status, you just ain’t going to get much a chance to see a so-called cinematic character study like director Scott Cooper’s Crazy Heart.

Neither instant classic nor pillar of the genre, the movie (adapted from novelist’s Thomas Cobb’s 1987 book of the same name), isn’t strikingly original either. The fact that it succeeds, even manages to create an imprint, falls squarely on the slumped shoulders of Jeff Bridges, long one of our more underappreciated American actors, delivering a full-scale performance with graceful aplomb, and ultimately creating one of the signature big screen turns of 2009. It’s an effortless portrayal, filled with guile and propelled by instinct, one that is weighted with authenticity and totally devoid of blandishments.

First-time director Cooper, who, by all accounts, stuck closely to Cobb’s novelistic intentions, brings a similar authentic feel to his under-the-radar directorial style. This is an actor’s movie, the sort that a Hal Ashby or Robert Altman would have once been drawn to, although in Cooper’s hands it is a purposefully straightforward film, lacking the extended complications or the multiple sources of conflict that the aforementioned filmmakers would have utilized to greater effect. Cooper does acknowledge the movie’s antecedents, with overt allusions to genre milestones like A Face in the Crowd (1957), Payday (1973), or Tender Mercies (1983).

Crazy Heart’s well-traveled tale concerns itself with Bad Blake (Bridges), yet another country and western macho poet with a fistful of magical songs, heartsick and stumbling towards oblivion with a lungful of cigarette smoke and gut full of bourbon. Blake bounces from Bowling Alley stage to straight-up saloon gig, often puking mid song, piloting himself with laid back charm or churlishness, almost broken with regret, yet nursing dreams about reversing his showbiz status. His shaky encounters with a mere trio of antagonists set the stage for an admirably unforced and neatly ambiguous tale of redemption. Colin Farrell is surprisingly competent in the part of Tommy Sweet, Bad’s protégé turned superstar pop commodity, while Robert Duvall (who mined much of this same territory when he once starred in Tender Mercies) brings some down-to-earth vigor to his few scenes as Bad’s now sober pal and father figure. The typically incandescent Maggie Gyllenhaal rounds out the triumvirate as a young single mom and journalist with (you knew it) with a misbegotten penchant for bad boys.

The seemingly infallible T. Bone Burnett (partnering here with the late Stephen Breton) once again delivers a soundtrack with acumen, with a batch of songs that seem realistically poised between classic outlaw C&W and the peculiar wryness of those leftfielders from the Townes Van Zandt school. The music is written from a point-of-a-view drawn from the Kris Kristofferson prototype (physically, Bridges could very well be the guy’s younger brother), the guy with the long hair and cowboy hat, submerging his intellect behind the drawl and the drink, one of those guys who buys right in to pop cult diviner Nick Tosches theory of straight up C&W music: “And ultimately there’s something about the depths of the human soul expressed within the confines of a rhinestone-embroidered puce suit—something not only of innocence and demonology but of proper perspective as well—that can’t be found elsewhere in this garbage heap that we call culture. ” Crazy Heart may be among the first Hollywood narrative that acutely digs into the mysterious songwriting process, albeit one that hints that dues’ paying is a central part of that process.

The same simple but sage methodology might apply to Bridges career. Since Crazy Heart comes up a little short in a variety of ways, its true strengths emanate directly from Jeff Bridges. Any movie-movie barroom chitchat would be promptly elongated if a debate ever sprung up over the actors best moments in a career filled with highlights and good choices. A quick, extremely partial (and highly personal) list: The Last Picture Show (’71), Fat City (’72), Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (’74), Rancho Deluxe (’75), Stay Hungry (’76), Cutter’s Way (’81), Starman (’84), Tucker: The Man and His Dream (’88), The Fisher King (’91), American Heart (’92), Fearless (’94), The Big Lebowski (’98), The Door in the Floor (’04); all in all a potent delineation of superb choices and exemplary execution from an absolute American big screen acting treasure.

Bridges, replete with untethered belt, sexy sloop, charmingly slurred voice (it’s actual rhythms established through chain-smoking and perpetual drinking), is another middle-aged American male somehow cast adrift, captivatingly lost between bad intentions and good expectations-a species Bridges does well--- a still likable loser, weak, yet imbued with fierce pride. The performance is scented with melancholy, and all the more effective for it, adding a redemptive tone to the overall proceedings that doesn’t delve into heart tugging or corniness.

(Suggestion: Put your cash on Bridges walking away with the Best Oscar Award. It’s a done deal.)

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