So long as it’s moseying along without a clear sense of direction, content to just spend time in the company of its broke, boozing 57-year-old country singer protagonist Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges), Crazy Heart has a laidback, ‘70s-cinema character-study coolness. Blake is a once-notable artist now reduced to driving himself around the Southwest in a beat-up ride to play beneath-him gigs at bowling alleys and bars while drunk as a skunk. It’s a dead-end life lived under a cloud of regret regarding failed marriages and abandoned sons, as well as jealousy over the former protégé and partner Tommy (Colin Farrell) who now makes his way selling out arenas. Writer-director Scott Cooper (working from Thomas Cobb’s novel) keeps these internal and external conflicts smartly muted, especially by refusing to cast Tommy as a callous opportunist or Bad as an unreasonably envious prick, and their rapport during a reunion exhibits a well-worn ease despite the fact that Farrell is never quite convincing as a country pop star.
Bad’s relationship with Tommy, however, is secondary to that of his budding romance with Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a Santa Fe reporter and single mother for whom the singer-songwriter falls hard. Theirs is an achy-breaky kind of love, and this amorous narrative development places greater structure on the story and, as a result, drains it of its loose, hanging-around vibe. As the plot gears drive Crazy Heart into ever more contrived places—culminating in a life-changing near-tragedy and subsequent, torpid redemption—the film becomes another monotonous last-chance-to-make-good saga gussied up with evocative desert plains cinematography and a raft of sturdy tunes for Bad (penned, in reality, by Stephen Bruton and T Bone Burnett) that coat the proceedings in world-weary remorse and sorrow.
Ultimately, though, this is simply a showcase for Jeff Bridges, and a reasonably decent one at that even when the script thrusts Bad down tediously hackneyed roads. With a scraggly gray goatee, a shirt constantly unbuttoned to reveal his ballooning paunch, and a gait that suggests decades spent imbibing his favorite whiskey and smokes, Bad is a jalopy of a man both physically and emotionally. Still, if this dilapidated has-been often resembles a messy, guitar-twanging Dude Lebowski turned lonely and miserable, the actor (who also sings and plays with gravely naturalism) nonetheless refuses to reduce his moldy musician to mere downtrodden sad sack, allowing flickers of Bad’s magnetic charm to peek through liquored-up eyes and exhausted grimaces and, in doing so, takes his country music cliché of a character and instills him with the spark of unique humanity.