Friday, November 30, 2012

Cinema 2010: You gotta heart Crazy Heart

If you are a mature romantic with a soft spot for regular Americans struggling with their demons, divorces, and cash flows, and especially if you dig the bluesy music at the root of today's popular country western genre, director Scott Cooper’s "Crazy Heart" is for you. The movie won two Oscars in 2010, including for Best Song for the Ryan Bingham/T-Bone Burnett tune "Weary Kind." The title of this gritty and pretty film comes from the lyrics.

Jeff Bridges won the Oscar for Best Actor for playing Bad Blake, a has-been country music star known as much for his golden oldies as for his favorite bourbon. Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Jean, a divorced mother working as a reporter who begins a romance with Bad. Gyllenhaal was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress and would have deserved the statuette had she won, so textured and instinctive is her performance.

First-time director Cooper lights Gyllenhaal in sunshine to convey the brightness of Jean's soul. Those rays also accentuate an alluring angularity that, while appealing, also foreshadows the hard edge Bad will inevitably bump up against.

Blake, by contrast, inhabits dark restaurants and dingy motel rooms where he can gulp booze and chain smoke between lurches to the toilet or the next barroom stage. Bad is pretty bad the first time we hear him gig. But soon his renditions improve as he responds to good sidemen and in particular to having Jean in his life.

Eventually Bad begins to recapture some lost glory and breaks through a long period of writer's block. But even if a songwriter can find inspiration in a bottle it is never a sound bet the booze will propel him to the top of the charts. Bad does finally confront his alcoholism, but the scare that sobered him has also pushed Jean away.

A clean Bad confronts Jean in a brief doorjamb reunion in one of the film's best scenes, in which one man's emotional inertia is pitted against a loving single mom's bottom line. In the process Cooper creates a wrenching reality check on the contemporary human condition.

Cooper — and cinematographer Barry Markowitz — offer inspiring landscapes along the blue highways out west and contrast those grand images with the mundane charm of bowling alleys and out-of-the-way outposts of Americana.

Clearly those beat-down environs demand real character from their denizens. To establish his protagonist's current circumstances Cooper contrasts Bad's brown '78 Suburban with the gleaming tour buses of headliners. But Cooper also conjures the sublime core of the man when, in a minimalist scene, a reclining Bad composes music on the acoustic guitar.

Robert Duvall, in a minor role as Wayne, a bar manager, takes over like a quiet force for love and wonderment, as if the entire cast and crew just naturally deferred to the great veteran actor. Duvall's performance is an anchor of serenity. Wayne takes Bad fishing in a grace-filled scene of visual symmetry that makes you wish there were room for you in that boat.

"Crazy Heart" also speaks to, and in its own way advances, a theme that has been stuck in its tracks in many recent films, namely, the prodigal parent who after years of neglect attempts to reconnect with his estranged family.

"Crazy Heart" may be a modest picture in terms of its budget and themes, but Scott Cooper — who also wrote the screenplay based on the novel by Thomas Cobb — tells the story with a cinematic flourish rarely seen in today's Hollywood. For his efforts Cooper also deserved to have been nominated for the Oscar.

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