Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Funny How Fallin' Feels Like Flyin'

In a splash of autumnal browns and golds the weathered visage of Jeff Bridges steps into some dive-bar spotlight, picks up his guitar and sings, barely out of a drunken stupor about how "fallin' feels like flyin'." It's an apt description for rookie director Scott Cooper's Crazy Heart. The film, which at its core about an alcoholic hitting rock bottom and pulling his life together, is never crushingly somber and often quite a joy to watch. The film, while small and simple in scope, is masterfully acted and manages to be pensive without ever becoming maudlin.
At the heart of the film is Jeff Bridge's Bad Blake, a country singer whose musical repertoire feels like a hybrid of Merle Haggard and Leonard Cohen. Blake, who was once a renowned songwriter and performer, has fallen on hard times and is now reduced to playing in bowling alleys and spending his nights either with floozy fans, booze, or more often than not, both. Blake is a masterful creation, a perfect synthesis of all the elements that have made Bridges the one of the most respected actor/stars of the past several decades. As Blake, Bridges has the wry likability of The Dude, the frustration of Duane Jackson and on stage the control of President Evans. Things slowly begin to turn around for Blake when he meets Maggie Gyllenhaal's reporter Jean. She's a single mom who is seeking an interview with Blake and the two quickly fall into an easy chemistry. At first Jean wants to maintain a professional distance, but she quickly gives in. They're too knowing to play the games of young lovers and Gyllenhaal brings a sinewy sensuality to her early scenes with Bridges. She doesn't just like him because it says so in the script, these characters work, even when they make bad decisions.
As the bond between Bad, Jean and her son deepens, Bad is moved to try to reinvigorate his career and reconnects with his new-country superstar protege Tommy Sweet (an always improving Colin Farrell). Of course the road to redemption is beset by all kinds of obstacles and while Bad does get his priorities straight, it is at great personal cost. If this is all starting to feel like a country music version of the Wrestler the comparison is apt. However, Cooper is a little less inclined toward melodrama than Aronofsky. He never pushes or manipulates and is content in keeping things as quiet as need be. The film takes its time and the viewing experience is richer for it. Cooper has an amazing cast of performers and lets them hold the stage, letting the audience enjoy genuine moments.

There are millions of tiny, wonderful details that puts Bridges alongside Christoph Waltz and Colin Firth as delivering one the finest male performances of the year. First off, there is Bridge's appearance. Bad Blake is a wreck of a once attractive man, he has let himself go. Bridges looks like a wet muskrat; scraggy haired, salt and pepper hair, leading each scene with his gut. Yet underneath it all there are still traces and swagger of a star and the composure of a professional. Take for example a scene where Bad is playing as a warm-up act for Tommy and Tommy sneaks up behind him to the delight of the audience. A broader film would have a more stated reaction from Bad, perhaps chagrin or surprise, but Bridges always aware of the character has Bad give Tommy a quick tip of his hat to Tommy. It's such a tiny moment but it's gloriously authentic, Bad is functional enough and lived enough that he knows how to deal with this sort of thing. Another scene finds Bad and his friend Wayne (a majestic Robert Duvall) on a boat as Bad recovers from a nasty hangover. It's a quiet moment where the two men hold the screen with idle chatter, quiet singing and fishing. It's the type of moment that is generally absent from mainstream American cinema. The audience isn't bombarded with flash but instead is embraced by quiet.

Oh and I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the sensational songs by T. Bone Burnett and Stephen Bruton. Honestly, I defy you to see this movie and not want the soundtrack immediately after. Bridges may not have the prettiest voice in the world but he has the chops to pull off each song. I could see them fitting seamlessly into a country jukebox between Kris Kristoferson and Waylon Jennings. There is so much to recommend about this film. Though I'm curious to see if it's just the exceptional alchemy of the actors and their material or if Cooper really has the goods as a director.

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