Oscarbation: Black Lungs, Bad Liver, Crazy Heart

12/26/2009 9:04 AM |

Crazy Heart

Hey, it’s Mutual Oscarbation, our awards season feature in which Benjamin Sutton and Henry Stewart crawl out of their Netflix envelope-insulated dens and find out during what sorts of movies Academy members are drinking whiskey. This week they go drunk driving across the Southwest with Bad Blake from Scott Cooper’s Crazy Heart.

Happy holidays Henry! I’m pretty happy with my gift this year, a comfortably predictable, but no less moving or enjoyable redemption story about the fictional over-the-hill country-blues musician Bad Blake, played by Jeff Bridges in a sure-bet Best Actor Oscar performance. How about you? I’m especially glad that Fox Searchlight brought us this indie film it picked up on the festival circuit because I think I might use it more than once. It’s not just about the amazing lead performance; Maggie Gyllenhaal is also exquisite as the journalist and divorced single mom Jean, who pulls Blake out of multiple smoky, whiskey-doused dens of sin and slovenliness; Colin Farrell is surprisingly subdued and genuine as Tommy Sweet, the young superstar whom Blake mentored; and even Robert Duvall fits in nicely as Wayne, the archetypal Duvall-ian fishing and drinking buddy.

More than preceding music movies about substance-abusing men being diverted from their death-drive by more emotionally sound women (most obviously producer and composer T-Bone Burnett’s previous film, the Oscar-anointed Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line) I found myself thinking of Bad Blake’s journeys across Texas, New Mexico and Arizona in terms of their likeness to the Western genre. Promising first-time director Scott Cooper, who also adapted the eponymous Thomas Cobb novel, regularly marks a pause so that a character can tell a story or anecdote. Listening to Wayne incant a proverb on a blissful fishing trip, Blake singing about falling into endless depths of sadness, or speaking semi-candidly to Jean during their interviews, I kept thinking of those sections in Cormac McCarthy novels when the epic narrative comes to a halt so that some old soul in a hut by the side of the road can tell our stoic hero a no-less epic story that goes on for pages and pages.

There’s also something of John Wayne in Bridges’ performance as Bad Blake: both have an imposing physical and screen presence, which can make those around them (and those of us watching) feel safe and righteous one moment, and deeply uncertain and anxious the next. At their sharpest they’re both the kinds of leader that I’d gladly follow to a shootout or a gig at the shittiest bowling alley in the Southwest. (That first scene, in which the twangy, cowboy hat-wearing Blake becomes Sam Elliott at the bowling alley bar in The Big Lebowski, was intended as an elaborate visual pun, right?) But when these leading men get sloppy and start teetering on the verge of collapse, they become terrifying vessels for any and all our apprehensions about the way our culture is headed. Are these really our models of archetypal masculinity? What the hell were we thinking when we gave them the job? Can we return them and get a Maggie Gyllenhaal-modeled leader instead? Henry, did you keep your receipt?

Well, Ben, I think you were a bit more impressed with this than I was. I like the connections you make to the western and cowboy archetypes, but I had a hard time seeing Crazy Heart as anything other than a musician biopic like, as you pointed out, Walk the Line. By comparison to Ray, in Whiteface, this film has a lot to admire, mostly in its details: the backdrop of a culture without sufficient respect for progenitors—a problem, in particular it would seem, for country music, what Gyllenhaal calls “today’s world of artificial country”; the musical numbers, filmed with a gusto reminiscent of A Hard Day’s Night—a camera that swirls around the performers, often shooting directly into the stage-facing lights; and the respect the film has for the showmanship and professionalism of musicianship, more than for the fragile egos of stars. Yeah, Blake gets so drunk at one point he has to stumble off the stage and vomit in an alley, but he comes back before the number is through. He never has to be carried off stage because he collapsed. He always finishes the set.

Still, this is above all An Actor’s Showcase, and I’m so tired of those: films that think they can cut narrative corners because they make up for it with Performance. Crazy Heart is competently executed, but we’ve seen its characters before, just as we’ve tracked their journeys to redemption. Will Gyllenhaal inspire Bridges to start writing songs again? Will a doctor warn Bridges that the drinkin’ will do him in? Will a small child cause Bridges to re-evaluate his life? Etc. etc.

But there is pleasure to be had from watching Bridges work off of his fellow actors, whether it’s the sweet-smiled Gyllenhaal, the respectful Farrell, or the grizzled Duvall. (Funny you should mention Cormac McCarthy, as Duvall appears in the recent adaptation of The Road, playing essentially the same character—you know, that one character Robert Duvall plays in everything now?) But, you know Ben, I respect Bridges’ performance, in which he grumbles to himself when he’s not growling at others, but I don’t really like it. Of course, it’s one of those oversized performances Academy voters love so, and it’s got a real chance of snagging an Oscar. But it’s so thoroughly conceived it starts to cross the line from messy, Method-y emotional realism into the meticulous design of Olivierian contrivance. Should we be congratulating Bridges, or the team that mussed his stringy hair and made him look positively Bukowskian (albeit with a cowboy hat)?

I guess my point is that, though Crazy Heart could have been a lot worse, just because it doesn’t make so many of the mistakes of its predecessors doesn’t mean it’s good. But, I tell you Ben, the one thing I really loved here were the songs, credited to Stephen Bruton and T-Bone Burnett. Perfect examples of the genre SiriusXM calls “Outlaw Country,” [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Outlaw_country] any number of them could be legitimate Top 40 hits, at least on the country charts, at least 30 years ago, like “I Don’t Know,” and especially “Fallin’ and Flyin’,” which has been stuck in my head for days. Unfortunately, the film mistakes maturity for minor chords, and the film’s dullest, dippiest song—“The Weary Kind (Theme from “Crazy Heart”)—is the one the producers are pushing for Best Song. I have the feeling it’ll meet the same fate as Bruce Springsteen’s “The Wrestler,” and then they’ll wish they listened to me, Ben. Then they’ll see.

Categories Baited: Best Picture, Best Actor (Jeff Bridges), Best Supporting Actress (Maggie Gyllenhaal), Best Song (“The Weary Kind”), Best Make-Up (Tarra D. Day, Geordie Sheffer et al.), Best Original Score (Stephen Bruton and T-Bone Burnett).