Ramblin’ Man
By Leah Churner

Crazy Heart
Dir. Scott Cooper, U.S., Fox Searchlight

In Crazy Heart, based on a 1987 novel by Thomas Cobb, rotary telephones coexist with bottles of Smart Water, and Jeff Bridges takes a hot air balloon ride. The setting is neither past nor present, but a composite of several decades, a Sun Belt landscape of two-lane highways, motor inns, and malls constructed of sloping, lacquered brick—that near-extinct corporate-park architecture of yesteryear. The film’s subtle eccentricity and candor stem from the mentor-protégé relationship between Robert Duvall and Scott Cooper, a first-time writer, producer, and director. Cooper shared his Crazy Heart screenplay with Duvall (already a friend), who agreed to anchor the production. With Duvall’s aura as a magnet, Cooper assembled a top-tier cast, Bridges, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Colin Farrell, and Beth Grant (she’s top-tier in my book), and enlisted two strong composers, T-Bone Burnett and the late Stephen Bruton.

Bridges plays Bad Blake, a once-famous troubadour, now in his late fifties, driving his rusty Suburban from one tiny venue to the next, playing with a different pickup band every night. His female fans, menopausal neon roses in strapless tops, are the only vestiges of his star status; he’s broke, overweight, and alone. The focus is on quotidian details: Blake watches Telemundo for the T&A, drops his sunglasses in puke, and haggles with sound technicians. During some sets, he’s backed by pedal steel and accordion, and really sounds good. Others, he’s sloppy drunk and fumbles with the microphone while sitting atop an amp.

After a two-show stint in Santa Fe, he spends the night with a young, divorced reporter, Jean (Gyllenhaal) and ingratiates himself to her young son, Buddy, by making breakfast biscuits. As they begin to date seriously, Blake increasingly (and believably) becomes a father figure to Buddy. Gyllenhaal succeeds in a difficult role—more often in reality than in films do we meet mothers who are at once career-minded, self-sacrificing, and thoroughly flawed. Like Waylon Jennings’s wife, Jessi Colter, she’s a goodhearted woman in love with a good-timing man, and she loves him in spite of his ways, but she’s also, like Colter, slightly off-putting; too pert and shrill.

Robert Duvall, craggy and compact, turns up as Wayne, a bar proprietor and recovered alcoholic. A decade or more his senior, Wayne is the only person with whom Blake can be honest. Pride keeps Blake distant from Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), the young star who idolizes him. Tommy got his start in Blake’s backup band, and now he has a multi-record deal on a major label. Like Bruce Beresford’s 1983 film Tender Mercies (starring Duvall), Crazy Heart is a chain of four intergenerational pairs: older man, younger woman; stepdad and stepson; estranged father and child; old musician and young disciple. (It’s possible that Duvall’s Wayne is Mercies’ Mac Sledge as an old man.)

Other films have featured better fictional country hits, such as Duvall’s “Fool’s Waltz” from Tender Mercies and Karen Black’s “Memphis” from Nashville, and I’ve heard worse ones, like everything in Clint Eastwood’s Honkytonk Man (he sounds more like Roger Waters than Jimmie Rodgers). But the difference between Crazy Heart and those movies is that this one had a budget for royalties. The soundtrack is filled with real classics by the Louvin Brothers, Kitty Wells, and George Jones—the original music doesn’t need to compete, it only needs to be plausible. And it is: “Fallin’ & Flyin” exudes the pie-eyed sentimentality of Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through the Night,” and one can imagine Townes van Zandt speaking his way through “The Weary Kind.”

We know from the serenade at the beginning of Starman that Bridges can sing and pick a guitar. But more than that, Bridges’s bluesy delivery (more Leonard Cohen and Tom Petty than Waylon Jennings) is truer to the contemporary sound of the progressive country singers who survived the seventies: Steve Earle, Guy Clark, Billy Joe Shaver, and dozens of artists gigging around Austin. In fact, Bad Blake’s character is partially based on Stephen Bruton, who composed “Fallin’ & Flyin’” and other songs for the film. A session guitarist, songwriter, record producer, and actor, Bruton spent four decades on the road (he owned the Suburban; Cobb’s original Bad Blake had a Dodge van). Bruton toured with Kristofferson and Rita Coolidge, recorded as a session musician and a solo artist, and produced Jimmie Dale Gilmore’s 1991 album, “After Awhile.” (Gilmore, the nacreous voice behind the Flatlanders, played Smoky in The Big Lebowski.)

Fox Searchlight, which salvaged Crazy Heart from distribution limbo, is working to frame the film as the Cinderella story of the statuette season, with assistance from the Oscar-gossip bloggers (“Tyro-helmer never dreamed of nod!”). But Crazy Heart is not as self-righteous and crass as Searchlight’s marketing department makes it out to be. The characters play against type in a totally nonacademic way, and unlike most country-music movies it doesn’t make a metaphor of Nashville. When Gyllenhaal and Bridges discuss the inevitable issue of “real country” versus Music City Row, the conversation isn’t a lecture in disguise; it’s the flirty, tipsy, bashful banter of two strangers fully clothed in a motel room. Likewise, Farrell’s character, who may look like Brad Paisley, is no diva. He sounds a bit like Dwight Yoakam, and has a Yoakam-esque insistence for giving credit where it’s due. (Yoakam recorded with Buck Owens in 1988, helping to revive Owens’s back catalog at a time when his pre–Hee Haw career as an innovator of the Bakersfield sound had been largely forgotten.)

Even Blake’s alcoholism is handled admirably. When he hits rock bottom, it’s not a Days of Wine and Roses opera of delirium tremens and pink elephants; he just checks into rehab. Cooper downplays the climax and lets poignancy seep into ordinary situations: Wayne sings a song while fishing. Blake, with a broken foot, uses his crutch to push Buddy on a park swing while puffing on a cigarette. It’s a labor of understatement, and it’s downright sincere.