Hollywood adores alcoholic or addicted artists as movie subjects.
This may well have more to do with the culture of the filmmaking community than with any appeal the subject might have at the box office or its intrinsic fascination.
Addiction has been lovingly depicted over and over and over again on the big screen. However, despite the critical success of films like Permanent Midnight, Tender Mercies or Walk the Line, most films about addicted singers, painters, writers and so forth do not actually do very well with the general public. It may be that to "ordinary" audiences the self-destruction of someone blessed with great talent can seem irritating rather than glamourous or instructive.
A one line description of Crazy Heart - ageing alcoholic country singer gets a second chance thanks to a loving woman - might make it sound wearyingly like all those other films about artists or musicians whose talent has been undermined or overwhelmed by their love of the bottle or the needle. However, Crazy Heart feels remarkably different and fresh.
This is not a matter of the plot - the storyline is mostly as familiar as the heartbreak and redemption tropes of country music. It is because Crazy Heart is a wonderfully understated and unpretentious film that boasts a superb central performance by Jeff Bridges and equally pleasing performances in smaller roles by Maggie Gyllenhaal, Robert Duvall, and Colin Farrell.
Bridges plays Bad Blake, a country and western singer songwriter in his late 50s who was once well-known but is now reduced to playing in bars and even bowling alleys in America's south west. He is a paunchy slob who drinks whiskey for breakfast but is still just professional enough to show up for his gigs, and to sing without slurring his words. The lyrics of his legendary songs (many of them written by T Bone Burnett) reflect the realities of his life "I used to be somebody. Now I'm someone else."
In Santa Fe, New Mexico, Blake is interviewed by Jean, a young journalist and single mum (Gyllenhaal) who is attracted to him despite his physical decrepitude and the age difference between them. Though Blake's relationships are generally limited to one night stands after his slightly sad gigs, and though he has made a mess of all five marriages, something in him recognizes the chance of salvation that Jean and her little boy represent.
At the same time Blake is offered a chance to play as the opening act for a much more successful singer (Colin Farrell) who was once his protégé before they fell out.
Inevitably, however, Blake is going to have to hit some kind of rock bottom before he really tries to sort himself out. He is a decent man whose mistakes people have generally forgiven because of his talent and charm, but as the film (based on a book of the same name by Thomas Cobb) rather bravely makes clear, it sometimes really is too late to fix all the mess you have made.
Gyllenhaal is not a conventional beauty but can seem astonishingly attractive on screen, and has never been sexier than she is in Crazy Heart. The age gap between her and Bridges looks almost disturbingly wide, yet their love scenes are stirring and believable.
Though at times Bridges looks oddly like John Goodman, his performance carries little trace of the boy-man he has played in films like The Big Lebowski or Men Who Stare at Goats. His recent performances have tended to be supporting comic roles (he was by far the best thing in How to Lose Friends and Alienate People) but he has always been a fine actor with a surprisingly wide range.
In Crazy Heart Bridges gives Blake just the right mix of dignity, pathos, southern courtliness, charm and buried anger. He deserves the Oscar nomination - and the award itself - not because of the "bravery" of being filmed looking fat and revolting but because of a performance that is wonderfully intelligent and measured.
It is a performance that is made possible by the fine script and deft direction by Scott Cooper. And it is all the more impressive given that Bridges is genuinely singing Blake's songs and playing his guitar.
Among the film's other pleasures are its New Mexican and Texan landscapes, the presence of Robert Duvall - all too rare nowadays - and a performance by the Irish bad-boy actor Colin Farrell (as country rock singer Tommy Sweet) that is remarkably restrained, sympathetic and believable.