At one point in Scott Cooper's Crazy Heart, 57-year-old alcoholic, down-on-his-luck country singer/songwriter Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges) explains that the great songs sound like you've already heard them. There's much truth in that statement, and it's an apt description of the movie's charm as well.
A onetime country star who wrote a number of popular tunes, Bad's career is currently in the dumps. He's on a tour traveling hundreds of miles a day in his trusty, beat-up truck in order to play in bowling alleys and bars with a different set of local musicians every night. His diet consists primarily of whiskey and the easily seduced members of his aging fan base. However, things change when he sits down for an interview with struggling young music writer and single mom Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal). The two begin a tentative affair, and not long after that, Bad's manager calls with an offer to have him open a big show for Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), a onetime member of Bad's backup band who's now a new-country superstar.
There isn't much pressing drama in Crazy Heart, but that's fine because the key to the film's success is Bridges. Looking and sounding a great deal like Kris Kristofferson, Bridges exudes a lived-in weariness. We see in equal measure how four bad marriages and a long time without a hit have turned him into an alcoholic mess, but we also see the talent and the inner fire that keeps him going even when it looks like his body may be too rundown to continue. On top of everything else, he does his own singing, and his voice has a gravelly authenticity.
The original songs he sings, composed by a number of pro songwriters -- including one of the film's producers, T-Bone Burnett -- sure sound like country standards. All the tunes are catchy and quotable -- most especially Bad's biggest hit, "Falling and Flying"; this is a rare case where the soundtrack alone will work just as well as the movie.
With its tale of an alcoholic faded country star looking for redemption, it's impossible to watch Crazy Heart and not think of Tender Mercies, a fact Cooper is quite aware of. Instead of running from the comparisons, he bravely embraces them by casting that movie's Oscar-winning star, Robert Duvall, as Bad's oldest friend, and it's yet another testament to Crazy Heart that it can stand on its own alongside that classic. Duvall -- who also is credited as a producer on the movie -- gets a pair of scenes to play with Bridges, and their low-key naturalism together is not only affecting for us, but should serve as a lesson for any young actor on the skills required to maintain a decades-long career. There are no histrionics, just two fictional people made flesh and blood before our eyes.
Crazy Heart is certainly familiar. It doesn't surprise with its story, but it surprises with the details in Bridges exquisite performance, and in the honest, plain-spoken way it touches on familiar themes like friendship, redemption, and love.