As has-been country singer Bad Blake (great name), Jeff Bridges looks like something scraped off the bowling alleys he’s been reduced to playing. His beard redefines scraggly. His guitar can’t hide his gut. His voice croaks from cigarettes, booze and one-night stands that earned him four divorce decrees. But this Bad boy can write songs and sing them like they’re torn from his insides, even though Bad’s headliner days are behind him and he has a habit of puking between songs. It’s a juicy, career-crowning role, and Bridges — a master of subtle brilliance — plays the hell out of it. Not by showing off but by going bone-deep into a character who only thinks he’s running on empty. Bridges just turned 60, and he’s still the most underrated actor in America. Crazy Heart may finally win him the Oscar that’s unfairly eluded him from his promising youth in The Last Picture Show to the glory days of The Fabulous Baker Boys, The Fisher King, Starman, Fearless, The Door in the Floor, and his immortal Dude in The Big Lebowski, from the brothers Coen. I could go on. Let’s just say that Crazy Heart offers the pleasure of watching a great actor at the peak of his form. How’s the movie? Well, first-time director Scott Cooper, adapting Thomas Cobb’s novel, is riding a well-worn trail, exemplified by 1983’s Tender Mercies, which won an Oscar for Robert Duvall (excellent here as Bad’s buddy).
Has there ever been a movie about a country singer who isn’t having a meltdown? The good news is that Cooper, an actor himself, shows a keen eye for authentic detail and an instinct for bringing out the best in the cast. Maggie Gyllenhaal is funny, touching and vital as Jean, the decades-younger single mom who might save Bad. The part is conventionally conceived, but Gyllenhaal plays it with a tough core of intelligence and feeling. Colin Farrell puts his Irish on hold and comes up aces as Tommy Sweet, the C&W star who’s now surpassed Bad, his mentor. Tommy’s also a movie star, going the Kris Kristofferson route, while Bad is an outlaw combo of Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard. It’s Tommy who commissions Bad to write a new song for him. The result, “The Weary Kind,” is a killer ballad that should class up Oscar’s Best Song category. Props to Stephen Bruton and T Bone Burnett for original tunes that fit Bad and Bridges like scuffed boots that have paid their dues on the road. Even when you know what’s coming, Crazy Heart haunts you like a classic country song. It’s a mesmerizer. So is Bad Blake. This dude also abides.