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Crazy Heart

A Ramblin' Man

Ballads of whiskey, women and heartbreak are a country music cliché, the wistful laments of road-weary troubadours resigned to lives of mistakes and regret.

Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges) leads just such a life. Some country crooners sing the blues for the money, but Bad is the genuine article. He has walked away from every relationship he's ever known, drunk himself into a stupor more times than he can remember, and fathered a son, now in his 20s, that he's never met. Once he played to packed houses, but when we meet him he's preparing for his latest show — at a bowling alley, with a pickup band — by drowning himself in the hard stuff.

Crazy Heart finds Bad after he’s hit rock bottom. He is 57, bloated from decades of boozing, and racing to an early grave. He can still carry a tune, so his manager (James Keane) keeps him on the road, traveling from one dead-end gig to the next in a truck that, like its owner, has seen better days. He talks about resurrecting his career, maybe with a new record deal, but it’s just that — talk. Bad is going through the motions; there’s no fight left in him.

Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal) senses this, but she allows herself to be seduced by his charm, which is considerable. A journalist and a single mother, she approaches Bad for an interview at his seedy motel, but he doesn’t want to talk about the music, the four failed marriages and the son he’s never known. “I want to talk about how bad you make this room look,” he tells her, and something clicks.

Bad is capable of tossing out lines like that with the same natural ease he brings to the stage. Whether he’s playing to a would-be lover, a half-empty lounge or a sold-out amphitheater — as he does opening for Tommy (Colin Farrell), a former protégé turned slick country superstar — Bad knows all the moves. It’s only in his lowest moments, as when he shuffles offstage to regurgitate his liquid lunch, that the strain is revealed.

It’s easy to guess where Bad’s story is heading. You’ve probably seen a movie like this before — Tender Mercies, perhaps, the 1983 film in which Robert Duvall played another down-and-not-quite-out country star — or maybe you’ve heard a song that hits the same notes. What distinguishes writer-director Scott Cooper’s debut is his storytelling, affecting but never maudlin, and a fearless performance by Bridges.

The 60-year-old actor has received four Oscar nominations in the past. Crazy Heart will earn him a fifth, and possibly his first win. He is as guileless a performer as you’re likely to find, infusing his characters with dignity and intelligence, winning our approval without begging for it. He has played memorable roles before in John Carpenter’s Starman (1984) and Joel and Ethan Coen’s The Big Lebowski (1998), to name two, and he’ll no doubt do so again. Bad Blake stands with the best of them.

Here, Bridges takes a familiar type — the self-destructive alcoholic stumbling toward the possibility of redemption — and plays him with as much grace as the role allows. Emotionally, Bad is all over the map, but Bridges, whose soulful baritone captures the weariness of a man slowly emerging from a nightmare, keeps him centered and real.