108 Minutes // USA // Fox Searchlight
dir. Scott Cooper
Tuesday, February 2nd, 2010 – AMC Yonge and Dundas
starring: Jeff Bridges, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Colin Farrell
Inoffensive and obvious, the beginning of Scott Cooper’s career is a tried and true one: appease the masses; don’t stray too far from convention; keep it simple. Fortunately for him his foot’s in the door — unfortunately for him, this film may cause you to head to one prematurely.
Crazy Heart is a tale of passion, redemption and assumption. Passion because when your main character is driving hundreds of miles in a beat up pickup to do shows in bowling alleys there’s not much else to say apart from “that dude is devoted”; redemption because as an alcoholic chain-smoker who has lost more than he’s loved, Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges) has to reform his habits if he wants to continue living and doing what he ‘loves’; assumption because apart from the basics aforementioned, you’re led astray by Mr. Cooper’s writing and direct. Like a dick driving you home, he tells you to check the back tire to see if it’s flat, only to speed away.
After establishing Bad Blake’s poor health habits — getting drunk before shows, throwing up often, having smokes and whiskey for ‘dinner’ — the film meanders about for awhile. Bad (because he likes to go by that in bored symbolism) is reckless because his career is going down the drain and because his manager is closer to booking him a set at your local corner gas than Madison Square. In addition, he’s jealous of Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell in a glorified cameo) and the success the songs he wrote for him have brought him. So in the back of your mind you’re meant to speculate some anomaly, even though there is no conversation ascertaining the reason for this tension. Ever.
Along the way he does a gig at a nicer establishment; a tidy bar in Santa Fe. He hears the pianist he’ll be working with fiddling on the keys. As a musician, he appreciates the talent the 50 year old man has and in turn does him a favor out of the gratitude he shows when someone displays musical know how. The favor: Doing an interview with his niece, Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Essentially this woman has been abused by men her whole life, left destitute with a baby in her belly four years prior and is only now understanding what she “doesn’t want” in life. Yet after the second day of her Q and A with Bad Blake that reveal him a man who can’t hold a relationship and worn out in many ways… she falls for him. So why do we care for her? We don’t. Well, we wouldn’t if Maggie Gyllenhaal didn’t supplement the craters in characterization with the humanist quality she possesses so perennial.
Their relationship builds, they fall for each other, she hopes to change his life while he sustains a rigorous sense of stubborn. Like in the paragraph above, why do we care for this character? Well I didn’t and this is where the film falters most. Let me demonstrate a simple contrast that most can understand. Take Randy from The Wrestler: another down and out type on the road a lot in hopes of achieving a new relationship and understanding of family. He’s by no means flawless and does stupid things. He’s crass, brutish, takes advantage of his success in disgustingly hedonistic ways and we understand him for this reason. What he does he does: we’ve no reason to question him, we dislike him when he’s made critical errors and he knows it, he is who he is. Bad Blake is the same way, but he’s assembled with a warming personality and everything he does we’re meant to sympathize with. In fact, there’s a scene where he sneaks away quite ‘comically’ from the room where a woman from the night before he’d just had sex with lay. Right there is a contrast: Ram slams a woman in a bathroom stall (piggish, raunchy, anticlimactic: funny to those with slightly perverse humor) while Bad sneaks away like a thief in the darkness (obvious, lengthy shot that makes some folk laugh at the cuteness of the scenario) .
When the cards come crashing down on him, we go “aw” or at least Cooper designs it that way with somber songs in the background and nice cinematography. No, he’s done wrong, make him pay for it — but that’s too antagonistic for a generic audience. And by siphoning any peculiarity away from this story, you’re left with a very middling, inoffensive and boring expose. There’s nothing to motivate the audience unless they’re simple and accept Bad Blake as a big ole teddy bear.
But it is in this way that the film finds its success. Now don’t qualify me for a stint at an asylum just yet; I’m not calling it great or even good but because it sustains the story the way it does — you know, loftily with fluff and predictability — that if you’ve a drip of optimism in your bones you’ll probably find this feature enjoyable to some degree. Watching two rivals, no matter how emptily constructed their past, perform a duo at a venue holding 12,000 will always be a sight to see. Moments such as these are the highlights that keep the film moving through torpor shots of a man puking or a woman being disappointed.
A film about music, the feature also thrives on its soundtrack. Or is meant to. The original pieces (or pieces that involve characters singing in general) are beautiful songs that give a bit of background to Bad Blake. “Fallin’ and Flyin'” is an excellent composed piece with lyrics giving heed to the misery that comes with being a star in decline. However, even these moments obscure insight because Cooper shoots them with a glamorous and fetishistic approach to singing on stage. Quick cuts to Bad Blake sparkling beneath the spotlight, audiences (mostly old, establishing how long his fame has been present) singing his tunes to themselves, lots of colors and swooping shots. These are critical moments if you neglect giving your character framework. So while attentive viewers will able to focus on the songs at hand, Cooper’s direction of these moments alienate the audience when they should be able to identify most with the singer. All of this because the stars in his eyes blind him from conveying simplicity with simplicity. In turn, he piles more problems upon the already destructive writing and keeps the film from being as palpable as something so straightforward should be. Sometimes you’ve just got to let a song play all the way through — let art be art and don’t feed into your whims.
While it is as frustrating a feature as you’ve ever seen, Crazy Heart accomplishes what it sets out to do and that is tell an innocent tale about a not so innocent man. It’s this unworkable contrast that hinders the feature most, but as tidy entertainment it works. With a good cast enabling the illusion that the writing is better than it actually is, the feature is hard to hate, but equally as hard to love. Like Bad Blake’s career, there are high points and low points. Too bad the plummet from those highs to those lows don’t feel like flying.