The songs we hear sung by Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges), the onetime country-music superstar at the center of Scott Cooper’s film Crazy Heart, are infused by a weary regret. “I used to be somebody,” he sings to a sparse crowd gathered at a bowling alley in southern Colorado, and it’s only the first of a series of lyrical recriminations that he’ll declare. Offstage, Blake is anything but penitent — he drinks whiskey by the bottle, chain-smokes, and brushes off the young musicians hoping to be acolytes for a day. From Colorado, his tour heads south to a cozier two-night stand at a small Santa Fe bar, where he meets Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal). A journalist and single mother, she seeks an interview with him, which — over talk of the Delta blues and Lefty Frizzell — becomes something deeper.
Writer-director Cooper — here adapting Thomas Cobb’s novel — introduces the less savory aspects of Blake’s life with a heavy hand. That includes early scenes in which Blake handles a bottle of his own urine and drunkenly fishes his sunglasses out of a pool of vomit. Bad Blake is a mixture of admirable work ethic and disreputable habits, but the low vocal register in which Bridges suggests decades of hard living and unhealthy habits is much more striking than these small moments of degradation.
The small details of the film are where it excels — the way in which Blake and his longtime friends (including a bar owner, played by Robert Duvall) are able to conjure a shared past using only a handful of lines. The sound of the live bands backing Blake at his different gigs is also spot-on: occasionally, you’ll hear a missed beat or a wrong note, irregularities one might expect when hearing a group of musicians play together for the first time. And the songs Blake sings feed into Bridges’s overall performance, deepening the emotions on display and suggesting that, on some level, Blake understands that the unhealthy routines of his twenties aren’t any better for him thirty years later.
Other, larger, elements of the film are less successful. The nature of the relationship between Craddock and Blake will likely set off alarm bells for anyone with a working knowledge of journalistic ethics, and it’s frustrating to see that go unacknowledged. Gyllenhaal is certainly believable in her role, but she and Bridges never quite click to the extent that they need to for the plot to work. And the chronology of the film seems languorous in places and rushed in others, with one late development in particular occurring without much of a chance to see its effect on Blake.
It’s an uncredited Colin Farrell, playing a former protege of Blake’s named Tommy Sweet, who leaves the strongest impression of what years spent in the company of Bad Blake can do. Their scenes together, at a concert in which Blake finds himself opening for Tommy, summon up a brutally complex series of emotions. As Blake heads into one of his old hits, Tommy sneaks on stage for an impromptu duet — thrilled to be making music with an old friend, yet knowing on some level that he’s upstaging his mentor. For all the awkward thorniness on display, it’s great to watch — and frustrating that this film, with all the effort made to create a memorably flawed (and played) lead character, doesn’t contain more moments in that same key.
Crazy Heart is now playing in limited release and is scheduled to open in other parts of the country in early to mid-January.