Thursday, February 04, 2010

The Ballad Of Bad Blake

CRAZY HEART (Dir. Scott Cooper, 2009)

Early this week Jeff Bridges scored his fifth Oscar nomination for his role as Bad Blake, a crusty Kris Kristopherson-ish country music artist on the comeback circuit. Surprisingly, at least to me, not one of those nominations was for “The Dude” – the iconic Coen Brothers character in THE BIG LEBOWSKI that completely reshaped Bridges’ career despite the fact that he had done much major work in the 30 years before that.

When Bad Blake shows up to perform at a dive bowling alley early in CRAZY HEART, one can’t help but sense the shadow of “The Dude.”

It’s felt again when Blake fishes his sunglasses out of a trash can he just puked in, and then there’s the way he passes out when he’s inebriated – yep, there’s a man for his time and place.

But make no mistake - Bad Blake is not “The Dude.”

He’s played by the same scruffy aging actor, sure, but Blake is not a comical creation. He’s a hybrid of country music clichés that somehow become a living breathing believable entity – a singer songwriter trapped in one of his own hurting heart songs. He lives gig to gig, bottle to bottle, groupie to groupie, etc.

Maggie Gyllenhall also picked up an Academy Award nomination with her fine though transparent part as a journalist doing a story on Blake. She has a kid (Jack Nation) which the grizzled journeyman bonds with on a morning after the mismatched pair sleep together. Gyllenhall knows Blake is bad for her, but she’s touched by his affection and the idea that he writes songs in her presence.

If you want to go the Western route in this synopsis you could say that as an old guitar slinger Blake has to contend with a young hot kid on the scene; a Keith Urban-esque former protégé played by Colin Farrell. Farrell’s handles his role with aplomb (he provides his own vocals like Bridges) and it’s nice that he doesn’t turn out to be a cutthroat adversary – that would’ve been way too predictable. Sadly, way too predictable describes the rest of the narrative arc.

Nothing happens in CRAZY HEART that you wouldn’t expect with this material. Every element is measured out in a sensible quantity and every set piece falls into its predetermined place, yet the film has a raw appeal. That credit goes completely to Bridges.

Whether character actor or unlikely leading man, Bridges has a charisma that goes deeper than just “The Dude” abiding. His smiling eyes light up his face even when his mouth is agape in a hopeless expression of not quite processing what’s just happened in front of him. When Gyllenhall comes to her senses about having Bad Blake in her life and tells him not to come around anymore, the look on his face alone should win him the Oscar.

Robert Duvall shows up seemingly to remind us of the similar character he played in TENDER MERCIES. Duvall, who seems to be living cameo to cameo these days (see THE ROAD), is a father figure to Blake and has one of the film’s best moments singing a sweet acapella version of Billy Ray Shaver’s “Live Forever” in a tranquil fishing scene.

That’s where the movie really soars - music-wise. T. Bone Burnett, along with Ryan Bingham and Stephen Bruton (a former Kristopherson band mate who died last year) crafted an authentic batch of songs that often made me forget the film’s story shortcomings. 

There's also well chosen songs like Waylon Jennings' obvious but apt "Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way" and Townes Van Zandt's "If I Needed Someone" to round out the mix. Maybe it’s a great soundtrack in search of a great film which doesn’t quite materialize, but it’s a sturdy set however you cut it.

So, CRAZY HEART or, as I call it, "The Ballad Of Bad Blake", contains an Oscar worthy performance, good songs, and an incredibly predictable yet still endearing premise. I can abide with that.

More later...

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