Monday, December 14, 2009

While My Guitar Begrudgingly Complains

by Andy Hobin

A couple times while viewing Crazy Heart, I looked at Jeff Bridges and saw Hank Williams Jr. Williams suffered an ungodly fall back in the 70's, and he took to sporting a beard, dark sunglasses, and broad-brimmed cowboy hat upon his return to public life, so self-conscious he was over his surgically reconstructed face. The beard / hat / shades trifecta is said to be Hank Jr.'s trademark look, though he hardly owns it. Waylon Jennings sported it. Merle Haggard still sports it. And for the better part of Crazy Heart, Bridges' “Bad Blake,” another relic of the “sad guy with a guitar” era of country music gone by, sports it. But like Hank Jr., Bad Blake wears his trifecta like a mask. Lest you believe otherwise, observe Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal), the love interest, yanking the shades and hat off of his emotionally distant head during one scene. She can't even see him, she complains.

But here's the rub. Bad doesn't quite ring true as the kind of tortured soul the film would like us to believe he is. (Bad Blake goes by “Bad” for short; his Christian name is a guarded secret.) He drives a cruddy old truck around the Southwest playing little gigs at bowling alleys and corner dives. His shows are attended by sparse handfuls of baby boomer well-wishers who were fans way back when he was the big dog. They buy him drinks, they call out requests, and collectively they're a helpful indicator of how far he's fallen from the public eye. You feel for Bad in that regard, but you also come to learn that he's not so much in a desperate situation as he is in a holding pattern of mediocrity. He whines about being broke, but his manager regularly sends him cash and he has a nice little house in Houston. He's an alcoholic, sure, but he's a highly functioning alcoholic. (How quintessentially country!) Crazy Heart asks us to invest in the hopelessness of Bad's life – to see him as a walking, talking, boozing, screwing country music songwriters hall of fame. Scratch that, the film tells us to. “Where'd all those songs come from,” Jean asks Bad early in the film. “Life, unfortunately,” Bridges drawls. Boo hoo, cowboy. You could be doing a lot worse. What's more, at this writing, 10% of the country is out of a job, and I'll bet any among that figure who can carry a tune would line up to trade lives with a working musician.

Despite all this, the acting carries the price of admission. First time writer-director Scott Cooper sets up a dusty, sweaty, flophouse world for his characters to inhabit, and then wisely sits back and lets his actors do the heavy lifting. Especially Bridges. He's just about the most charming actor working today – the Tom Hanks of all points south of the Mason-Dixon line. It's that likeability, not a series of pathos appeals for sympathy, that causes the audience to find itself rooting for Bad. This is partly due to the fact that the pathos appeals in the screenplay are not terribly effective, but ah well. Bridges is supported by another fine turn from Maggie Gyllenhaal as an impulsive, big-hearted mom who takes an improbable shine to the old bastard, and their scenes together are tender and at times entirely moving. Also surprisingly good is Colin Farrell in a small role as Bad's one time protégé turned contemporary country megastar who might be Bad's ticket back onto the gravy train. (Ireland's a long way from Nashville, you scoff. Sure, but so is Australia, and Keith Urban could buy and sell me like I'm hanging on the shelf at a dollar store.)

Also worth the price of admission? The soundtrack. T-Bone Burnett's at the wheel in this department, thank God, and he spins gold out of Bridges' and Farrell's numbers. The real revelation here, though, is a guy named Ryan Bingham, who not only appears in the film as a member of Bad's backing band but, with Burnett, co-wrote the song that Bad struggles to write throughout the story. It's called “The Weary Kind,” and it's a lovely, somber song, one that is as authentic and stirring as Crazy Heart itself wanted to be. Bingham's stock will hopefully rise considerably between now and Oscar time.

Small side note: George Clooney's character in Jason Reitman's forthcoming Up in the Air is also named Ryan Bingham. Don't get confused.


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