Expand the story in your average old-fashioned country song to feature-film length and it would look a lot like Crazy Heart, writer-director Scott Cooper’s debut about drinkin’, lovin’, and livin’ too hard. The bad boy in this tale is actually named Bad. And when we meet him, he’s a grizzled, washed-up singer in the Kris Kristofferson/Merle Haggard vein, barely making enough money to avoid sobriety as he drives his truck around what might be called the Southwest Bowling Alley Circuit.
Adapted from a Thomas Cobb novel, Crazy Heart is a thin and fairly predictable slice-of-life. Yes, Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges) stumbles through his days and screws up gigs, most of them sparsely attended by barflies who can’t clap to a beat. Yes, he gets nagged by his manager (James Keane) and is bitter about the mainstream success of a kid he mentored, Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell). Bad, who’s been married four times and has an estranged son, falls for a journalist, Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who has a young boy of her own. He even crashes his truck. The only thing missing is a one-eyed dog.
Yet it all goes down as smoothly and enjoyably as a fine whiskey. Bridges is generating Oscar talk, and rightly so. His performance never for a second feels like one: This character is thoroughly lived-in, from Bridges’ pro-level singing and stage presence to the wry, too-late-now attitude he brings to the character’s shitty life. Bad gets away with being an ass because of his former glory, but even when Gyllenhaal’s apparent Dorothy Hamill–haired madonna enters the picture, there’s not a total about-face. He may have found a new spark that puts him on his best behavior, but at his best he still drinks—and when Jean stops looking the other way, he mutters: “I don’t want to hear it” before driving off. And, surprisingly, the actors’ 28-year age difference doesn’t result in a queasy romance. Bad’s music, though out of style, keeps a nugget of him young, while Jean’s former bad decisions and life as a single mom lends her a weariness beyond her years, helping their attraction feel natural.
The best part of Crazy Heart by far, though, is its soundtrack. Music producer T Bone Burnett also wrote several of the songs in Bad and Tommy’s repertoire, each of them chart-worthy. And Cooper wisely doesn’t relegate the music to quick glimpses of Bad’s gigs, instead letting Bridges and Farrell entertain audiences in near-real time, allowing the melancholy singles (and the actors’ impressive turns as country stars) to transport as thoroughly as a live performance.
The film’s most prominant shortcoming is its facile third act, with an ending that’s neither completely rosy nor irrevocably tragic—yet still too neat. But sit through the credits and the entirety of one of the soundtrack’s strongest offerings and you’ll forgive the missteps, just as Bad’s fans are able to separate the exhilarating entertainer from the flawed man.