Bridges’s Bad Blake still has a loyal following but mostly plays bowling alleys and rundown honky-tonks. He prides himself on never missing a show but, once onstage, his participation is iffy. In one garishly funny sequence, he breaks off mid-number, rushes into a back alley to throw up, and then rejoins the band as if nothing was wrong. In his own strung-out way, Blake has aplomb. Somewhere deep inside this bushy-bearded guy with a bum leg and a big belly is the young star he once was.
The best thing to happen to Blake is Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a starry-eyed feature writer for a Sante Fe newspaper who interviews him and winds up in his bed. Groupies are nothing new for Blake, but Jean, who is divorced with a little boy, is different. She’s smart, tough-minded, and has class. When she first walks into his dingy motel room, he remarks that she “makes the room look bad,” and he’s not trying to butter her up. He’s just being honest.
It is because of Jean that Blake, whose health is declining, decides to reform. Because of the responsibilities she imposes, Jean is also why he stumbles. The romance between these two doesn’t quite convince, perhaps because, as Gyllenhaal plays her, Jean seems too level-headed, too unmasochistic, to fall for Blake. But this criticism may be off the mark. “Crazy Heart,” familiar as it seems, doesn’t play out the way you expect it to. What Gyllenhaal, and debuting writer-director Scott Cooper, are saying is: You can be nobody’s fool and still be a fool for love.
This is certainly true for Blake, who seems to lose about 30 years whenever he’s in Jean’s company. His foolishness is restorative. Cynical as he is, he still has high hopes. His relationship with Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), a former sidekick-turned-star, is fraught, but when Tommy, who genuinely likes Blake, asks him to write some new songs for him, Blake delivers. “I used to be somebody but now I’m somebody else,” Blake sings early on. “Crazy Heart” is about how he joins himself together again.
Bridges makes all this corn-pone sorrow worth watching. Not once does he condescend to his character. Blake is no rube, no cracker. Bridges has been one of America’s best actors ever since he started out in his early 20s in films like “The Last American Hero” and “The Last Picture Show.” He’s given amazing performances in everything from “Cutter’s Way” and “The Iceman Cometh” to “Wild Bill” and “The Fabulous Baker Boys.” But because he’s rarely been in blockbusters he’s never gotten the popular recognition he deserves.
“Crazy Heart” probably won’t change that. Adapted from a novel by Thomas Hood, it’s scaled small and it’s not startling enough to make us forget its antecedents, especially “Tender Mercies.” (The star of that film, Robert Duvall, is a producer of “Crazy Hearts,” as is Bridges, and has a small role in it.) It would be a mistake, though, to assume that Bridges is like anybody else you’ve ever seen. (He, like Farrell, even does his own singing, and he’s good.) Most of these country-and-western roles are open invitations to chomp scenery, but Bridges, who looks here like Kris Kristofferson from some angles, is so supremely naturalistic that you never catch him acting. This is, of course, the most difficult form of acting.
Bridges draws us deeply inside Blake’s moment-to-moment heartbreaks. He makes us root for him as we would root for a dear friend. Ultimately, his triumphs become our own. Grade: A- (Rated R for language and brief sexuality.)