At the Arthouse
Unpredictable Crazy Heart overcomes clichés
Under the heading “so old it’s new,” let us now consider Crazy Heart.
This movie’s story of a has-been country singer seeking and finding redemption was already quite familiar when Robert Duvall played a similar character in 1983’s Tender Mercies. But in the going-on-30 years since that film won hearts and Oscars, the movie business has gone in a whole other direction. It’s not just that the vast majority of films today rely on special effects to make their points. It’s that, even when they rely on actors more than computers, the stories they tell usually have an at-best nodding acquaintance with recognizable human beings doing recognizably human things. Screwing up relationships. Drinking too much. Doing their work the best they can.
So, it came as kind of a shock when, well into the film, this thought occurred to me: there’s no kind of foolishness in this movie at all. Everybody is acting like people that I know. Instead of the usual crap there is the magnificent wreckage of down-and-out country singer Bad Blake, played of course by Jeff Bridges, who deserves all the praise and Oscar talk that has been bestowed on him.
If you just look at the story, the clichés really do pile up. Bad is an alcoholic who sabotages relationships and his professional life with drunken behavior. Then he meets a good woman who loves him, but needs for him to straighten up and sober himself up. Which he proceeds to do, while reinventing himself as a songwriter in the process.
The clichés do break down at this point, and the movie finally goes in an unpredicatable, but satisfying direction.
Still, the tremendous pleasure the film bestows has little to do with its story. It’s mostly in the performance of Bridges, who mixes pride and emotional need in just the right proportions, and who looks like Waylon Jennings come back to life. And the songs, mostly written by the late Stephen Bruton and the great T-Bone Burnett, are characters in their own right. They add nearly as much emotional weight to the film as Bridges does.
Besides the novelty of its being about the trials and tribulations of a finally rather ordinary person, the movie had another surprise for me as a Houstonian. I hadn’t known that a good bit of the film is set here, if not shot here. (I think there’s just a single establishing shot of the skyline.)
But I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised after all. Thomas Cobb, the author of the novel Crazy Heart, wrote the book under the tutelage of Donald Barthelme in the University of Houston Creative Writing Program. In a recent interview, Cobb even said that the character of Bad Blake was in large part based on the hard-drinking, chain-smoking Barthelme, who was about Bad Blake’s age when he died of cancer.
It’s a shock to think of the rough-hewn Blake as being inspired by the professionally ironic, jazz-loving postmodernist, but once you’re past the surprise you realize that Cobb was writing an alternative ending to the Barthelme story. Cobb may not have intended this—he published the novel before Barthelme got sick. But watching the fine film made from Cobb’s soulful novel, you can’t help but wish the old master had himself checked into rehab before it was too late. Watching Bad Blake do so gives the great consolation of art; it can correct the mistakes of life.