If I were picking a Jeff Bridges role that I thought would represent his finest work, and bring him the attention he has so long deserved as one of America's best actors, it probably wouldn't be his performance as Bad Blake in Crazy Heart. But really, isn't that nit-picking?
With a Golden Globe victory already behind him, and an Oscar nomination in hand, Bridges is getting plenty of attention this awards season. Crazy Heart finds him taking on the kind of role that sometimes feels like it was written strictly to get awards, and a role that bears more than a passing resemblance to the one that revived Mickey Rourke's career a year ago in The Wrestler. It would be easy to sleepwalk through a part like this, but whatever flaws Crazy Heart brings to the table, it's not because of anything Bridges does. Bad Blake may not be at the top of his game, but Bridges still is.
As played by Bridges, Blake is one of those never-quite-was, self-destructive country troubadours always with a cult following but not much else to show for it. Though his gray beard, gravelly drawl and knowing squint make a dead ringer for Kris Kristofferson, he's more a cross between Steve Earle and John Hiatt. Stuck playing bowling alleys and tiny saloons across the Southwest, Bad barely manages to scrape together enough cash to keep his truck gassed up and himself liquored up—but he's still interesting enough to capture the fancy of Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a single mother and aspiring journalist in Santa Fe. Not surprisingly, they strike up a tentative romance, with both of them trying to construct something resembling a normal relationship.
The Bad/Jean twosome becomes the narrative focal point as Bad fights with his demons, but it turns out to be by far the least interesting part of the story. While Gyllenhaal is perfectly serviceable, the role exists primarily as a catalyst, and Jean's own personal issues are given only a perfunctory airing. At times the character even seems to exist just so her young son can give Bad a way to work out his issues with his own estranged son—eventually a bottoming-out experience. Whatever genuine emotional connection—or even rudimentary mutual comfort—you can find in Bad and Jean's dalliance, consider it icing.
There's far more compelling material to be found in the relationship that frames Bad's self-loathing: the one with his one-time sideman, Tommy Sweet. Played in an unbilled considerably-more-than-a-cameo by Colin Farrell, Sweet's an arena-filling, platinum-album-selling cowboy who has rocketed past his mentor. But he's no villain here. Farrell plays him as a respectful protégé doing what he can for Bad, unable to clue in to how resentful Bad is of Tommy's success, and how much his income depends on Tommy's cover versions of Bad's songs. In Crazy Heart's best and most nuanced scene, Bad grudgingly plays an opening set for Tommy's concert, during which Tommy slips onstage during the opening number for a duet. For Tommy, it's an act of deference and support; for Bad, it's one more time when Tommy steals his spotlight.
It's a shame writer/director Scott Cooper couldn't have found a way to wrestle Thomas Cobb's novel more in the direction of emphasizing that relationship—not just because the Tommy/Bad dynamic is so much more interesting than the love story, but because it places Bridges in the context where his character comes into the sharpest focus. The original songs—performed by Bridges, himself no slouch as a musician—are terrific, and we get a sense for Bad's talent as a songwriter. But he's a mediocre stage presence at best, and not just when he's abandoning his microphone in the middle of a song to hurl his drunken guts out into a garbage can. Bad's inability to connect with people isn't just personal; it's also professional, which makes his career trajectory easy to understand.
And this is how you know you're dealing with a talented actor: In a somewhat mechanical screenplay, he's pitch-perfect at performing someone who isn't a particularly great performer. It's easy to win style points from awards voters by letting yourself go to seed, and playing the showy scenes of a blackout alcoholic finding himself on the bathroom floor. It's harder to find a way to show the gifts of a man who does his best work when no one's watching him.
Crazy Heart continues at the Village 6.