Crazy Heart (2009) is notable for its relatively successful (because narrow) portrayal of a once famous country music singer struggling with decline, alcoholism, and general physical collapse. The acting by the two lead actors, Jeff Bridges and Maggie Gyllenhaal, is strong. The settings—bowling alleys, seedy nightclubs, one concert arenas, Gyllenhaal’s house, Bad Blake’s house, and the western desert--are what you’d want in this film about a down and out country music singer.
The plot is predictable. It reminded me of the 1971 film Payday in which Rip Torn portrayed a similar sort of country music singer in serious decline. But Crazy Heart is its own film with its own narrative. It works on the proposition that the love of a good woman can redeem even the most lost of lost men. This is the premise of innumerable country and western songs. Payday gave a grim naturalistic portrait of the country music industry from the viewpoint of a man--Maury Dann--struggling to pay his way from one day to the next, indifferent to the pain his alcoholism, drug abuse, and narcissism have caused. It’s difficult to like Maury Dann, or even to recognize what there might have been about him that once would have given him promise in the country music world. Crazy Heart asks its audience to like Bad Blake. Yes, he’s an alcoholic who has made all the mistakes alcoholics make—broken marriages, alienated children, lost opportunities. But he’s also lovable. When he sings we can understand that he really does have a talent. When he screws up, we’re sorry. And when he and Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal), bruised by a painful divorce, start a relationship, we’re hopeful. Jeff Bridges portrayed a character vaguely similar in the title role of The Big Lebowski (1998).
(Crazy Heart is in fact about a lost opportunity, but also about the possibilities it opens up).
Payday ends with Maury Dann dead in a cornfield. Crazy Heart refuses to give up on its romance with Bad Blake, even in what happens in his relationship with the younger Jean. The novel by Thomas Cobb on which the film is based provides a darker, and perhaps even more realistic, outcome.
Good acting and a strong screenplay make Crazy Heart work. Robert Duvall’s brief appearance as Wayne, a bartender and Blake’s close old friend, enriches the film.