Movies like Crazy Heart, a homespun, refreshingly modest portrait of a washed-up country singer, live or die by their performances. You need a great actor in order to build an entire picture around a character like Bad Blake, a lonely, self-destructive boozer who has given up on himself as he approaches 60. He's an embodiment of the sad songs he sings, except that there's nothing romantic about his melancholy. If Blake doesn't care about his life, then why should we?
Blake has bourbon for breakfast and bourbon for lunch: Dinner is something he shoves in between drinks. During the day, he holes up in ratty motel rooms, smoking and drinking until he passes out. Even when he takes the stage to perform dusty hits at bowling alleys, Blake is so soused he has to take puke breaks between songs. While his former musical partner, Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), became a superstar, Blake quietly faded into obscurity. Down to his last $10 and with nary a friend in the world, he is essentially a man waiting to die.
And yet Jeff Bridges, who plays Blake, never lets you lose sight of the man's humanity - of a reason to care about him. Actor-turned-filmmaker Scott Cooper, who wrote and directed Crazy Heart (based on the novel by Thomas Cobb), doesn't give Blake any big moments that tug at your sympathy, and he doesn't try to find any cheap pathos in the sight of Blake with his head in a toilet bowl or laid up in the hospital.
Instead, Cooper lets you experience Blake's gradual reawakening right along with him, and Bridges' superb performance - not the slight plot - carries the weight. When romance blooms between Blake and Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a journalist assigned to interview him, the relationship initially feels forced. What could this beautiful, intelligent young woman see in such a ramshackle man?
But Bridges subtly lets us feel how much Jean, a single mother careful of whom she allows into her life, means to Blake: She inspires him to live up to his potential, and that is what seduces her. Blake's competitive attitude toward his former protege (exceptionally played by Farrell) is imbued with the same emotional complexity. We understand why Blake can't bring himself to write songs for the younger singer, even though the deal would bring him a fat paycheck.
Crazy Heart is the sort of picture that exists primarily to showcase its actors: The smart camera angles and edits are unobtrusive to the point of invisibility. Inspired by the opportunity to sing and play guitar for the first time in a film (the catchy songs were written by T. Bone Burnett and the late Stephen Bruton), Bridges brings his 50 years of acting experience to this one captivating, surprisingly moving performance.
Late in the film, when Blake musters up the courage to make a difficult phone call, your heart is in your throat, because by then Bridges has led you to sympathize with this complicated man, and you recognize his attempt to right past wrongs. But has he waited too long? I know Crazy Heart probably sounds like a movie you wouldn't go out of your way to see, especially if you're not fond of country music. Within 10 minutes, Bridges will make you glad you gave it a chance.
Crazy Heart opens Friday, Jan. 29 at Aventura, Sunset Place and South Beach in Miami and Sunrise in Fort Lauderdale.