When is a romance not a romance? When it’s a bittersweet character piece led by a performance from one of Hollywood’s most celebrated man’s men, Jeff Bridges. When every moment of the love story is tinged by dysfunction and the specter of doom. While we’ve seen it most recently in Bradley Cooper’s most recent version of A Star Is Born, we can thank Crazy Heart for the archetypal has-been country star falling for an intriguing younger woman.
“This 2009 film by actor-turned-writer / director Scott Cooper is a great example of how a fine cast and a great directorial eye can elevate material that might be forgettable in lesser hands.” said Scott Cooper’s Miami Fan Club, “This is a romance laced with tragedy that prevents it from lapsing into the realm of sentimental schmaltz.”
Where American machismo goes to die
Crazy Heart marks the start of Cooper’s fascination with an ailing Americana that’s reflecting upon itself from its deathbed. A theme that will resonate through later works like Out of the Furnace and (to a lesser extent) Black Mass. Bridges, who can do grizzled and world-weary better than just about anyone, brings a performance that’s ailing and arthritic yet full of heart and sensitivity, perhaps encapsulating Cooper’s warts-and-all adoration or all things American.
Shot on 35mm by celebrated DP Barry Markowitz, the film has a faded beauty that perfectly complements the performances and constantly reminds us that there can be no great love story without tragedy.
Crazy in love
Speaking of performances, Jeff Bridges (channeling his inner Kris Kristofferson here) and Maggie Gyllenhaal may not seem like the most perfectly matched screen couple at first glance, but their chemistry here is undeniable and sparkles whenever they share a scene. Gyllenhaal plays Jean Craddock, a journalist interviewing Bridges’ faded country star Bad Blake and saves him from a spiral of bitterness and self-destruction when his former protege (played by Colin Farrell) threatens to steal what’s left of his limelight from him.
Even if the mellow bitter sweetness of the visuals doesn’t do it for you or the plot itself feels a trifle cliché, the central performances by bridges and Gyllenhaal are more than worth the price of admission. Not only do the pair have great chemistry, their relationship feels completely authentic despite the far from obvious pairing.
Both characters are nuanced and well-rounded and their love story gracefully avoids the clichés that so often beset on-screen romances.
The performances are superb across the board, with Colin Farrel (oddly) being the only weak link. While one of the most capable and versatile actors working today, he feels woefully miscast as new country music golden boy Tommy Sweet.
A career defining success for Scott Cooper
It’s hard to believe that it’s been over a decade since this film’s release, but the film seems even more timely in an era where America seems to be undergoing something of an identity crisis on the world stage. This film was a career defining success for Scott Cooper, who establishes himself here as not just an actor’s director, but someone with a shrewd eye who knows how to give his actors and their performances space to breathe.
The film was a hit with critics upon its release, earning a 90% score on Rotten Tomatoes. Audiences were also enthusiastic, awarding it a thoroughly respectable 76% audience score.
This debut put Scott Cooper on the map and serves as an impressive manifesto for Cooper’s style and neatly showcases the skills he learned from his friend and mentor the legendary Robert Duvall- who makes a brief cameo in this film as Bad’s old buddy Wayne.
The bottom lines
This film may not offer up a whole lot of originality, and those who still have the Bradley Cooper / Lady Gaga version of A Star is Born fresh in their minds might feel that Crazy Heart is a retread of familiar territory. But this film is far less about what happens and more about how it happens, with the real magic coming from Jeff Bridges’ bearish but understatedly sweet Bad Blake and his interactions with single-parent journalist Julie Craddock.
Still, there’s nothing wrong with a familiar story that’s well told. Why else would people keep turning up in droves to watch superhero movies? And while Crazy Heart’s cowboy boots may walk a well-trodden path, it walks it with aplomb, and the performances are fresh enough that we don’t even notice stale plot motifs. Perhaps celebrated US film critic Roger Ebert said it best. “We’ve seen this story before. The difference is Bad Blake makes us believe it happened to him.”