[Screen It]

(2009) (Jeff Bridges, Maggie Gyllenhaal) (R)

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Drama: A formerly famous but currently washed up and alcoholic country singer finds his life of playing small joints brightened a bit when he meets and then falls for a much younger, divorced mom.
Bad Blake (JEFF BRIDGES) was once a big thing in the world of country music, but he's now a mostly washed up and alcoholic, 57-year-old performer who plays bowling alleys and bars for tiny crowds of adoring fans who still love his old work. He does too, and would rather spend his time drinking and/or with middle-aged groupies rather than write anything new, much to the chagrin of his manager, Jack (JAMES KEANE), who's always hustling to book his gigs.

He's clearly reluctant to work with his former protege and band-member, Tommy Sweet (COLIN FARRELL), who's now a big thing on the country music scene. He certainly doesn't want to talk about him to Jean Craddock (MAGGIE GYLLENHAAL), a local reporter in El Paso who lands the rare interview. A single mom to 4-year-old Buddy (JACK NATION), Jean just wants the story, but she finds the unkempt star interesting, while he's near-instantly smitten with the much younger woman.

Despite her hesitancy to get involved with any man again, the two become an item. Yet, his drinking and always being on the road -- including eventually hooking up again with Tommy who still idolizes him -- threatens to put a strain on that. With the help of his old friend and bar owner, Wayne (ROBERT DUVALL), however, Bad hopes to prove he's a changed man to Jean and thus allow him to stay in her and Buddy's lives.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
While most music is designed to entertain, it's not unusual -- as Tom Jones is oft-heard to sing -- for varying degrees of thematic matters to be included in some songs. Some of those involve global or national matters, but others dig down to a personal level, addressing past, present or future mistakes, heartache and such. Of course, the best do so in ways that make listeners feel such songs are telling their tales, and not that of the singer or band.

Many of today's younger music aficionados might think rap music is the first or best to do just that, but country music has been at it for decades, back when rap was more associated with blame or striking knuckles than spoken, urban poetry. Although many of today's younger country stars keep up the personal story tradition, many of them are just "woe is me" poseurs, unlike the genre stars of old who actually lived -- sometimes barely and usually quite roughly -- through what they later sang about. Accordingly, such old school stars -- and their fans - aren't always particularly enamored with the pretenders.

Bad Blake is one of them, with his stage name immediately signaling part of what you need to know about him and his past. Now 57, he's washed up and nearly always on the bottle, reliving his past glory days at small watering holes and bowling alleys. He barely makes a living playing for small contingents of still adoring fans and enjoys the brief company of the occasional, middle-aged groupie.

And he certainly doesn't want to talk about his former protege who's now one of country music's big stars whose music comes from others rather than a hard-knock life of his own. When the faded star meets a younger woman and her son, his life seems poised for a turnaround, but his long-standing behavior threatens to undermine the potential for happiness.

That's the premise and gist of the small-scale drama, "Crazy Heart." If that sounds familiar, it could be due to being covered countless times in any number of similarly themed country songs over the years. For others, it might just stem from bearing a fairly striking resemblance to the plot of "Tender Mercies," the 1983 drama starring Robert Duvall in the lead role (who just so happens to also appear in this film and serve as one of its producers).

This time, he plays the best friend character and thus cedes the starring part over to Jeff Bridges. I've been a fan of his way back to the "Thunderbolt and Lightfoot" and beyond days, and the actor has delivered more than his fair share of excellent work in front of the camera over the intervening decades. Yet, he's among a handful of Hollywood's best who's never been rewarded with an Academy Award. While not quite the best performance of 2009 (in my humble opinion, but clearly among the top three), I have to paraphrase Johnny Cash: "I hear the Oscar train a-coming, it's coming 'round the bend."

Simply put, Bridges is Bad, and by that I mean good in that he oozes this character from every pore of his body. While Duvall and fellow co-stars Maggie Gyllenhaal (as the love interest) and Colin Firth (as the protege who's eclipsed his former mentor) are all fine performers and deliver decent work here, they feel like actors doing their thing compared to Bridges who so naturally wears this well-worn character that you'd swear this is really him. It isn't a showy performance, but rather a completely natural feeling one, even down to the singing parts.

Working from his adaptation of Thomas Cobb's novel, novice writer/director Scott Cooper clearly benefits from having the actor at his disposal, and the filmmaker doesn't waste any of the talent, feeding his star some delicious and telling lines of dialogue from which Bridges extracts even finer character details.

If there's one complaint about the offering, however, it's that the basic plot doesn't shine as brightly as its star. While he might be playing a familiar character, Bridges infuses him with enough unique nuances to make him stand out from the crowd of similar personas.

The story, however, goes through its motions and trajectory in far too familiar ways. Although it starts off strong when introducing the character, it becomes fairly rote once the others are brought in and their various plot involvements with him play out. There are few surprises, with the only mystery being when certain things are going to happen.

It's certainly far from a fatal flaw, and those who don't mind seeing familiar stories told in similar ways probably won't mind. That's much like classic country music fans who don't care that it's not the first time they've heard about cheatin,' achin,' hearts, running afoul of the law, or even the dog hitting the road. For them, it's what the singer does for the song, and Bridges is the talent who brings a wonderful and completely organic melody to the tune here. Thanks to that, "Crazy Heart" rates as a 6 out of 10.

Reviewed January 25, 2010 / Posted January 29, 2010

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