Will Crazy Heart Come Out of Nowhere to Win Jeff Bridges An Oscar?
The screening was cloaked in secrecy -- the Fox Searchlight rep wasn't even allowed to say the film by name in her e-mail invitation. But by the time I got to the Fox lot for the 6 p.m. show, the cat was out of the bag. Bloggers at an earlier screening of Crazy Heart -- a film starring Jeff Bridges as alcoholic country singer Otis "Bad" Blake, that the mini-major plans to rush into theaters to qualify it for an Oscar run -- had begun to buzz. They claim the film pushes four-times-the-bridesmaid nominee Bridges to the front of the Best Actor pack, and in doing so save Searchlight some awards season face after Amelia barely managed to get off the ground.
And they might be right.
Searchlight picked up Crazy Heart for seven-figures last summer, and had initially slated it for a spring 2010 release. Based on the Thomas Cobb novel, it was made on a modest budget by first-time director Scott Cooper, but boasts some marquee power: Maggie Gyllenhaal plays a small town, single mom journalist who falls for Bridges' character over an interview; Colin Farrell is a Brad Paisley-type who owes Bad his career; and Robert Duvall, alongside whom Cooper acted in 2003's Civil War epic Gods and Generals, plays a wise, wizened (what else) bar owner pal of Bad's.
There were about five of us in the theater, and we were warned that the film was unfinished and still required color correction. But what was screened seemed mostly ready to go. It's a bit of a paint-by-numbers story of soggy alcoholic redemption, and you can tick off the beats as quickly as they fall: Pot-bellied Bad pulls up to a pathetic venue -- a bowling alley -- whereupon his drinking problem is quickly established as he makes a beeline for the bar, only to be told by the manager that he'd been given strict orders not to offer the singer a tab. An impressionable backing musician then introduces himself to his hero, only to have his image shattered when Bad leaves a song mid-verse to go puke in a trash can in the alley -- one of several instances of pukeus interruptus over the course of Bad's journeys. Bad makes it through the gig somehow, then crawls out of his dingy motel room in the morning light with a rough-looking groupie (Extract's Beth Grant, in a wordless, demeaning performance) still passed out in his bed.
In Gyllenhaal, Bad predictably finds the beginnings of redemption, but they are a strange pairing -- he being twice her age, she being tolerant of the waves of gasoline fumes that accompany his every whispered sweet-nothing. Her young son is supposed to be cute but comes off obnoxious, in that grape juice pitchman way, and when Bad finally reaches his "rock bottom" moment involving the kid, it's utterly uninvolving. (Not to mention Gyllenhaal's fault.)
Comparisons to The Wrestler aren't out of place -- the basic story elements are the same -- but what made The Wrestler so great was its eye for capturing detail and character in the strange world of underground professional wrestling. The same cannot be said for the world of washed-up honky-tonk. The fringe characters dotting Crazy Heart seem not stock, per se -- rather, they're just not drawn at all. Wrestler also had a wry sense of humor -- I'm thinking of those deli counter scenes, or the scene at the vintage clothing store -- while Heart just rolls along on an endless, monotonous loop. It's a slow film, and it feels slow.
But what of Bridges? The part is a feast for a great actor, and Bridges is definitely a great actor. Is the performance in the same league as the other Oscar frontrunners? Funnily enough, his journey is basically the drunk, country music version of George Clooney's in Up in the Air: older white guys who've coasted through life not giving a shit about anyone but themselves, who then suddenly have the realization that dying alone isn't all it's cracked up to be. Both are worthy, in that predictable Academy-nip way, but Bridges has the goods, the back story and no flashy hardware on his mantel. His chances are good. The original songs, by T-Bone Burnett, also stand a good chance of a nomination.