Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (April 30, 2010)
After five tries – and 38 years – Jeff Bridges finally earned an Oscar for 2009’s Crazy Heart. Bridges plays Bad Blake, a worn-out old country singer whose best days appear to be far behind him. Broke and in poor health, Bad plays an endless series of low-rent gigs.
His prior fame does keep him going, though, and he gets offers for bigger things, most of which come from his former apprentice Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell). Now a huge star, Tommy wants to help out his old mentor, but Bad is too stubborn – and maybe just too lazy – to do much to follow up on the younger musician’s generosity.
While he drinks himself into oblivion, Bad meets a small-town newspaper reporter named Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal). While she interacts with him for her story, the two develop a relationship that turns romantic. Along with Bad’s vague attempts at career redemption, his connection with Jean maintains much of the film’s storyline.
Any review of a movie with an Oscar-winning performance needs to address one subject: did the actor deserve it? In Bridges’ case, I’d say yes. He takes a character who easily could’ve turned into a cheap stereotype and manages to produce real depth. In lesser hands, Bad could – and perhaps should – have been little more than a one-dimensional washed-up drunk, but Bridges delivers a turn that gives the role humanity and a life.
Gyllenhaal also earned an Oscar nomination, and I’d say that she merited such consideration as well. She gets the less interesting character, but she manages to create a memorable piece of work. Jean acts as the catalyst to prompt Bad to change, but she’s not a simple Jiminy Cricket. She comes with her own flaws as well, and Gyllenhaal makes her lively and winning.
Outside of the acting, unfortunately, Heart doesn’t have a lot going for it. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad film by any stretch of the imagination, as it always remains interesting and entertaining. However, the writing and direction just don’t live up to the level of the acting. The actors elevate the pedestrian material but can’t wholly overcome it.
To some degree, the script falters because the movie barely attempts any form of story. It’s a film full of subplots that fail to serve an actual main thread. We get a collection of character themes mixed with musical segments and not much else. These manage to maintain our interest, but not to a tremendous degree. The movie ambles just a little too much, as the lack of a true plot robs it of much energy.
Yes, I understand one could argue – and argue correctly – that real life doesn’t follow a neat, tidy storyline. However, movies aren’t real life. While we crave verisimilitude from a flick like this, that doesn’t mean we want to watch a banal collection of shots that show someone’s day-to-day existence. We want interesting characters and story material. Heart has some good characters, but the absence of an involving plot becomes a problem.
As does the fairly trite nature of the subplots we find. While Heart avoids the standard TV movie path in which Bad goes straight and finds total redemption, it flirts with that theme and doesn’t do much to reimagine the genre. We can see a lot of Bad’s path before he gets there and the journey rarely becomes especially stimulating.
Not that any of this makes Crazy Heart a bad movie. It’s simply a decent one that often feels less substantial because it’s actors are so good. That sounds backwards; it seems odd to knock points off of a film because it boasts excellent performances. However, when the actors outclass the rest of the movie, the imbalance causes problems. In this case, it leaves Heart as an enjoyable but not especially strong flick.