Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Thoughts on a Sure-fire Oscar winner

In the midst of discussing every other movie in the world, we never got around to discussing Crazy Heart, even though it scored three big Oscar nominations and is about a 99.9% favorite to walk away with two of them.

And the nominations -- minus one -- are well-deserved. Jeff Bridges is a fabulous, incredible actor, one of the best of his generation and one of the best of the last three decades, period. And his work here, as Bad Blake, is wonderful and tough. He doesn't imbue the character so much as the character imbues him -- with the unmistakable ennui of a grizzled, hard-living shell of a former country legend. Great stuff. And the film's theme song, The Weary Kind, is a lovely ballad that is seamlessly incorporated into the film and perfectly encapsulates the film. Supporting Actress nominee Maggie Gyllenhaal...not as good, but it's not her fault, and we will get to that later.

To the fact that Bridges' Oscar is now a foregone conclusion: the performance isn't so ridiculously brilliant that it should automatically merit an Oscar. Let's calm down and get a hold of ourselves here. For all of Bridges' brilliant work throughout his career, the guy has never won an Oscar. So this year, in this film, in this category, the Academy is choosing to give the understood Career Achievement Award to Bridges. I don't want to diminish the work, because I love Bridges and I really like his performance in Crazy Heart, but it's not brilliant insanity. For this year, I would easily give the Oscar to George Clooney, who took on the most challenging and subtle role of the year in the most important movie of the year. And for me, Bridges should already have two Oscars, one for The Big Lebowski, which many loyal fans will agree with, and another for The Contender, which many people forget about, but shouldn't. If I controlled the universe, Bridges would not win this year, but I understand the reasoning and I admire the work.

The film itself? Decent. Solid. Sometimes more solid than other times, which I suppose would mean "uneven." And that's a fairly accurate critical description of the film in very generalized terms.

Continue reading after the jump....

Getting more specific, the film -- based on the novel by Thomas Cobb and adapted for the screen and directed by Scott Cooper -- is entirely reminiscent of every Down-and-Out Former Star Gets One Last Shot movie ever made. The particular world of this film -- the down-home country music scene -- further rusts any attempt at cinematic freshness. Bridges, as earlier referenced, plays Bad Blake, formerly a legendary country performer and songwriter, who now makes his way through the low-rent tavern circuit on his own dime, in his own run-down Suburban, using his only remaining cash on a continuous flow of whiskey. Occasionally someone will recognize him and provide the standard celebrity trappings of his choice: free food, whiskey, and one-night stands with aging bar floozies. Bad has continuing phone conversations with his frustrated agent, who attempts to score any and every small gig he can muster, but neither man is deluding himself into believing there is any way to restore Bad's glory days. All that remains of Bad is a hollow shell of a country singer, fueled only by booze, who is on his way to the gutter or the grave.

On one routine stop on Bad's endless road trip of small concerts, he meets with Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal, fellow Oscar nominee), a small-town reporter who apparently takes to Bad's charms so quickly that they nearly hook up during their first meeting. The relationship becomes the central hub for the film's drama, which becomes a problem since it is the film's least convincing element. Everything about the story, from its pacing to its structure to its ultimate resolution, feels rushed and, what's more, feels false. The actors are, obviously, not at fault, though Gyllenhaal's performance occasionally feels odd and untrue because it is, more than anything, a screenplay construction to create conflict.

Individual scenes work beautifully well. Many of them involve Bridges' interaction with Colin Farrell, who shows up in one of those Look-Who-It-Is! roles as Bad's former apprentice who is now the biggest country star on earth. His minor subplot, involving Farrell's renewed interest in working with his faded teacher, is far more believable and intriguing than the romance. The central story becomes irksome and feels painfully conventional at times, especially in the wake of last year's truly great The Wrestler, which took an almost identical framework and told the story with far more passion and intensity, not to mention logistical realism. And yet Bridges does create a real character, and the music is good (Bridges and Farrell do their own singing), and there is great interplay between Bridges and the other characters.

In the end, Crazy Heart is an uneven mixed bag, overrated at almost every level but with very strong moments, that manages to be engaging enough to carry the viewer through to the end. Worth a watch? Yes. Worth the hype. No.

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