Thursday, May 20, 2010

The unrepentant outlaw: 9 notes on Jeff Bridges in Scott Cooper's Crazy Heart

Scott Cooper's Crazy Heart skillfully evokes such rich musical and cinematic heritages, one can only sketch them out:

1) Musically, one thinks of the "outlaw" country singers
Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Hank Williams, Jr., and so on. According to Cooper, Kris Kristofferson was so moved by the resemblance between Bad Blake and himself, he had to leave the screening to go compose himself.

2) Cinematically, the film reminds one of Bridges' previous work in The Last Picture Show. It also made me think of Honeysuckle Rose, Red Rock West, Hud, Lonely Are the Brave, and Leaving Las Vegas.

3) I like the way the film's opening scenes in a scruffy New Mexico bowling alley are both a tribute to The Big Lebowski and a progression beyond it. Bowling was ideal for the previous classic film because it remains the perfect ironic retro sport for the consummate slacker, and the movement of the bowling ball down the lane supplied the Coen brothers inspiration for both great tracking shots and fantasy sequences. And yet, Bridges' Lebowski is also a schlub who has a Raymond Chandler-esque mystery adventure happen to him, not because he does anything to warrant it. For all of its many strengths, The Big Lebowski still supplies wish-fulfillment for the overgrown stoner set (including Julianne Moore in the Dude's bed, no less).

In the case of Crazy Heart, the bowling alley also shows us how low Bad Blake has sunk and how ill-suited to modern life he is. Instead of arriving with an entourage, he drives up alone in his '78 Suburban affectionately named Betsy. He has his belt buckle undone, and a milk jug of piss to empty on the parking lot. He lights a cigarette and walks inside, only to learn that:

a) there's no smoking inside, and
b) his manager has already contractually forbidden him from keeping a tab at the bar.

4) Delightfully, Bad is a self-destructive rebel throwback. In an age where sanctities about healthy living increasingly replace religion, Bad eats steak dinners, chain-smokes (cinematically speaking, smoking a cigarette is now worse than committing murder), and chain-drinks whiskey even as it obliges him to vomit into a trash can during a performance. He crisscrosses the west, driving from gig to gig with hemorrhoids so bad they feel like a "nest of fire ants up my ass," as he phrases it. He wears his name (Bad) and his country western look like a mask-- a gray beard, shades, a cowboy hat, and grey slacks.

5) Earlier in the year, when Jeff Bridges appeared in various profiles as well as a video short made by Newsweek with several other movie star Oscar-winning wannabes, I was put off by his attempts to live up to his Taoist ultra-laid-back persona, but now that I've seen Crazy Heart, I find his immersion in Bad's character compelling. Why?

6) Because Bud is both a swine and an artist. With the help of music producer T. Bone Burnett, Crazy Heart does a better job than Almost Famous at creating a convincing stage persona enhanced by Bridges' decent singing and plausible hit songs written by Stephen Bruton and Burnett. I don't even normally like country music, but somehow first-time director Scott Cooper makes Bad sound and look genuine, even in relation to the "artificial" more commercial country music coming out of contemporary Nashville. Cooper succeeds in part by casting Colin Farrell, of all people, as Tommy Sweet, the much more successful country star who feels indebted to Bad for teaching him most everything he knows. Farrell's slight awkwardness in the role (he is, after all, from Dublin) emphasizes how he's a pretender in comparison to Bad. Naturally, being older, less telegenic, and drunkenly impractical, Bad does not have Tommy's marketability.

7) Why else is Bridges compelling? Because he keeps seducing former cast members of Donnie Darko. Beth Grant (formerly the evil Kitty Farmer) appears as Bad's first groupie in the film.
Then, Darko's sister Maggie Gyllenhall plays Bad's major love interest Jane Craddock, a fledgling reporter. Her role is slightly underwritten, since we never really know what draws her to him (especially given the age difference between them), aside from his country star charisma. There's one scene when she starts to cry, smearing her mascara, because Bad has written such a beautiful song in her bed, and then she imagines he will move on and forget her. The scene mostly emphasizes the film's murkiness about her character. Her overly cute kid, Buddy, eats biscuits with Bad (a scene with alliterative overkill). Will Bad become a good father for Buddy? Probably not.

8) Bad remains a pleasantly unrepentant ne'er-do-well for much of Crazy Heart. He passes out at the wheel of Betsy and rolls his truck. He also conks out by the toilet in his underwear. But just when you think he's finally dead from alcohol poisoning, a friend, cheerfully played by Robert Duvall, picks him up and takes him fishing. When Bad's doctor tells him he faces emphysema, cancer, and a stroke, Bad just stares at him. Can he have some more of those painkiller prescriptions? Bad faces various judgments for his self-destructive habits, but they also marinate his brain and make him more fun to watch. His old-fashioned decadence supplies melodramatic material for his songwriting.

9) Lastly, I liked Bad because he gets viciously rejected multiple times, most coldly by a grown son that he's neglected since he was a four year old boy. Even though we know Bad deserves it, Bridges carefully conveys his character's desolation. For all of his warm country songs and his chummy techniques on stage, Bad is in essence a cold, self-involved man who hides behind an outlaw mask. Still, his artistry redeems him a little, and that is what makes Crazy Heart so resonant.

13 comments:

Anonymous said...

Nice observations on the film. But, Jeff Bridges wasn't in Leaving Las Vegas...

Anonymous said...

Nor was he in Red Rock West, Hud, Honeysuckle Rose, or Lonely are the Brave... ?

FilmDr said...

Good point. I meant that Crazy Heart reminded me of those films.

Anonymous said...

Ah, much clearer, thank you!

The Caustic Ignostic said...

The more I think about it, the more it becomes obvious to me that Bad is essentially the villain of the story, even if we've been suckered into believing that he's the hero.

http://gatewaycinephiles.com/2010/02/06/play-it-loud-enough-to-keep-the-demons-at-bay/

FilmDr said...

Thanks, Caustic. Bad is certainly a mix of the two. In some ways, he's a classic boomer type (at least like some I have known), accustomed to being the generational center of attention. Crazy Heart works because it rides that line of ambiguity to the end. Even with the film's tendency toward bogus uplift (the balloon scene comes to mind), Bad remains bastardly enough to keep the viewer off balance.

Flickhead said...

For those of us who've been conditioned... uh, I mean educated by Alcoholics Anonymous, Crazy Heart's alky angle becomes clear relatively early in the film. No, not because of Bad's drinking; but because the owner of the liquor store he wanders into before the bowling alley is a character named Bill Wilson, an homage to the co-founder of A.A.

FilmDr said...

But doesn't Bill hand Bad a free bottle of whiskey? That seems like a strange way to allude to AA.

Flickhead said...

Perhaps that bottle is what set the wheels in motion for his eventual recovery.

A reach on my part, for sure, but I just didn't want to seem completely shortsighted!

Jason Bellamy said...

Flickhead: Yeah, it's definitely anti-AA to suggest that the bottle is the motivator for eventual recovery. I mean, discussion of "rock bottom" is common in AA-type settings, but they never suggest racing to find it. "Rock bottom" is the lowest point an addict gets to before heading the other direction, and it's a sliding scale. Some people find it quickly. Others die before they get there. Anyway, having said that, I'm sure that's a direct allusion, even if it's an awkward one.

As for the addiction element of the film, I was disappointed with how the situation is resolved, which I discussed in my own review and then debated in comments. I found it frustrating both realistically and dramatically -- a lot of supposed conflict and then a quick and easy solution.

Some complaints aside, there's nothing but praise for Bridges' performance. It's certainly one of his best ... and I say that a night after revisiting one of his other wonderful performances, in the sometimes strange but often compelling Fearless.

FilmDr said...

Thanks, Flickhead and Jason,

I was bothered by the ease of Bad's later recovery, but the film keeps shifting from the pleasantly bleak to the slightly fraudulently uplifting. I liked it best when Duvall picked Bad off the bathroom floor and took him fishing. Cooper uses a long, leisurely high shot over the fishing boat, as if to show how Bad can be restored at any time. He need only return to his Huck Finn roots and adoring fans. I think ultimately, in my case, Bridges' acting won me over to the point where I didn't care so much about the weaknesses of the film.

Flickhead said...

While they were fishing, I believe it was the first time I'd ever heard the term "barley pop" used for beer.

FilmDr said...

I also like the way Duvall's role in the film runs parallel to his role behind the scenes. He helped Cooper secure Jeff Bridges and Burnett for the movie (the key combination that made it work). Duvall also carries the western association with Lonesome Dove.