There’s something comforting about the way Jeff Bridges’ relaxed drawl floats lazily at the center of the wonderful “Crazy Heart,” the tale of a faded man trying to find color again.
Bridges, in one of the finest performances of the past year (he’s considered the Oscar front-runner for best actor after this week’s nominations), revisits territory he first explored 20 years ago in “The Fabulous Baker Boys”: a talented yet undisciplined musician on the outskirts of success, playing small venues and just getting by.
But while his Jack Baker, plunking out “Feelings” at tired piano bars, still had a weary bad-boy glamour, the fate of Bad Blake in “Crazy Heart” is somewhat less picturesque.
Bad, in his late 50s, wrote hit country songs once upon a time; now he crisscrosses the country in his beat-up car, peeing into a bottle and staying at the kind of motels where the pool is always drained.
He plays gigs at bowling alleys and low-rent bars, usually getting drunk before closing (necessitating a mid-performance break to vomit).
“I used to be somebody,” he sings, “now I am somebody else.”
Though he’s difficult to work with, his talents are still in demand; former protege Tommy Sweet (an uncredited, beautifully low-key Colin Farrell) is anxious for more songs, but Bad finds it easier to coast, watching porn in motel rooms and wondering what happened to his youth.
And then, as a country song might have it, love walks in, in the form of a journalist named Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal). She’s a soft-spoken single mother who asks Bad the kind of questions that make him change the subject.
An awkward yet delicate love affair ensues, with Bad knowing she’s good for him and Jean knowing he’s bad for her, until Bad’s demons re-emerge and “Crazy Heart” takes some unexpected detours.
Bridges and Gyllenhaal have a sweet yet spiky chemistry, and Robert Duvall (who won an Oscar as a country singer in “Tender Mercies”) is perfect as Bad’s faithful pal.
And the songs, most written for the film by T-Bone Burnett and the late Stephen Bruton, come from that place in the soul where the best country music lives, letting the characters sing the feelings and dreams they can’t speak.
“Pick up your crazy heart,” goes one, late in the movie, “and give it one more try.”