It's practically a foregone conclusion that Crazy Heart star Jeff Bridges will win the best actor Academy Award for playing Bad Blake, an ornery cuss drinking away his country music career and maybe his life. It is also widely conceded that Crazy Heart would be a rather ordinary movie without Bridges' marvelously etched portrait of Bad at its center. We've watched films about country singers on whiskey-soaked slippery slopes too many times for writer-director Scott Cooper to invent new verses. But Bridges accomplishes something astonishing with this role, something so genuine that rock bottom isn't deep enough to describe Bad's situation. What makes this performance great isn't that Bad can't hold his liquor; it's the way Bridges handles it for him, not as a showy drunk but as man too accustomed to drinking.
Here's an example: Bad's lying in bed, talking to the good-hearted woman (Oscar nominee Maggie Gyllenhaal) who every good-timing man in these movies deserves. A tumbler of whiskey rests on his belly, rising and falling with every breath but nary a ripple. Bad has reclined like this so often that he knows exactly where to position the glass so he won't need to touch it until he's thirsty.
Seconds later, Bad's ready to move the glass to the nightstand. Bridges grips it with his fingertips and in one fluid motion awkwardly cocks his arm, twists his wrist and sets it down safely without looking. It's a reflex now that Bad probably took years and spilled spirits to master. Bridges constantly identifies such small gestures, echoing every binge that sank Bad to the depths where we find him.
Such subtlety can be overshadowed by Crazy Heart's rowdy, radio-ready musical numbers, with Bridges superbly aping the sandpaper twang of a bona fide country music outlaw. The songs, mostly composed by T-Bone Burnett, Ryan Bingham and the late Stephen Bruton, carry almost as much of the narrative as Cooper's script.
"I used to be somebody, but now I'm somebody else," Bad growls in his introductory concert, and we immediately know it's true. "Funny how fallin' feels like flyin' for a little while," he later croons, and few people know better than Bad. Crazy Heart isn't a musical yet uses its songs to better dramatic effect than the flaccid Nine did.
Since this is a character study, Crazy Heart isn't as concerned with plot as much as how Bad deals with his next decision. Bad could stop playing low-paying one-night stands if he'd swallow his pride and write songs for his former protege, now a Nashville star (Colin Farrell, surprisingly fine as a Kenny Chesney type). He could settle down with Jean (Gyllenhaal) and her moppet son (Jack Nation), who bring out the best in Bad by urging him to put down the bottle.
It's a familiar theme, one that many country songs contain and the best ones find fresh, thrilling ways to express. For Crazy Heart, the difference between the same old song and something special is Bridges' performance, transcending cliches with such effortless sincerity that even lighter moments can make you weep. Funny how Bad's falling does feels like flying, thanks to an acting master on the brink of finally getting his due.
Steve Persall can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.