Bridges sings a bittersweet tune in Crazy Heart; Closing The Book Of Eli

by Mark Burger

For his role as veteran country singer “Bad” Blake in Crazy Heart, Jeff Bridges has dressed down for the role. He’s packed on a few pounds, grown a grizzly gray beard and adopted a slow-moving Texas twang. These are the sort of mechanics that make Academy voters sit up and take notice.

As well they should.

Physical appearance aside — and it’s impossible to ignore Bridges’ stillpotent, matinee-idol good looks (we should all look so good at 60) — it’s the depth of commitment and feeling that Bridges brings to the role that have made him a favorite to take home his first Oscar as Best Actor.

In adapting Thomas Cobb’s novel, first-time director Scott Cooper has fashioned a rich tour de force for Bridges, playing a man who’s at the end of the line, doing his best (and worst) to hasten it, yet still on the verge of a personal resurrection and redemption.

This story, however, is not altogether unique: Burned-out, booze-soaked country singer tries to change his ways. Think Robert Duvall in Tender Mercies (1983), Rip Torn in Payday (1973), Willie Nelson in Honeysuckle Rose (1980), Joaquin Phoenix (as Johnny Cash) in Walk the Line (2005)….

That’s not to say that Crazy Heart is a bad movie; it’s not. But it is, sometimes, a very familiar one. We’ve seen characters like Bad Blake before, both in movies and, from time to time, in real life.

When we first encounter him, he’s hitting bottom. He was on top once and he screwed it up. As the story progresses, he finds a reason — usually an attractive, female reason — to turn his life around, and he works hard to do it. Then, somewhere along the line, usually in the second act, he tumbles off the wagon and nearly wrecks things for good. Finally, in the end, he finds a semblance of stability and tries to take it… one day at a time.

Crazy Heart does not stray far from that blueprint.

Then again, audiences tend to love underdog stories, and Crazy Heart certainly qualifies as one. Bad Blake may, indeed, be “bad” — irresponsible yet irresistible, self-loathing and selfdestructive — but one doesn’t hate him, even despite the hateful things he sometimes does. (Nevertheless, even when he’s played out-and-out villains, it’s hard to hate Jeff Bridges under any circumstance.)

It’s the performances that make Crazy Heart sing, not the least of which is Bridges’. Also noteworthy is Maggie Gyllenhaal, who scored an Oscar nomination of her own (for Best Supporting Actress), as the journalist who interviews Bad and can’t quite resist his woozy, worldly charms despite the age difference and her status as a divorced mother.

Colin Farrell is utterly persuasive as Tommy Sweet, the current reigning country-music superstar, with whom Bad worked years before. Tommy wants to repay the favor, but the inordinately proud and obstinate Bad won’t make it easy.

Rather than cloak Tommy in swaggering arrogance, Farrell makes him likable and charming — it’s easy to see why Tommy would become a star — but he’s nobody’s fool. He got to where he is through hard work and, to some small extent, the guidance Bad once gave him. He’s giving Bad a break — knowing full well that he needs it (Bad knows it, too) — but Tommy will just as soon walk away if the old man becomes too unwieldy.

It’s always nice having Robert Duvall around, although here it’s a constant reminder that he played a similar role (and won his own Oscar as Best Actor) for Tender Mercies more than 25 years before. (He’s not playing the same character here, in any event.)

Performances this savory are impossible to resist, and although Crazy Heart hits some recognizable notes in the story, it sings its own heartfelt song.

Still loitering at area theaters, The Book of Eli is yet another postapocalyptic parable in which it’s survival of the fittest in a desolate, decimated landscape. Think Waterworld without the water (sand will suffice) or the Mad Max films with fewer automobiles.

Denzel Washington (also a producer) and Gary Oldman fill out the requisite roles as hero and villain, respectively. Washington plays — big surprise — Eli, a man of few words but not a few moves, as anyone who gets in his way discovers, usually to their everlasting (albeit brief) regret. Oldman plays Carnegie, the seething lord of a futuristic frontier town (first seen reading a biography of Mussolini), who is hellbent on laying his hands on the book that Eli carries with him.

Directors Allen and Albert Hughes bring some visual panache to the proceedings, but some obvious plotting and some plodding pacing hardly make this a memorable excursion. Washington and Oldman tend to outclass the material (not difficult), and the supporting cast (Jennifer Beals, Ray Stevenson, Michael Gambon, Tom Waits and an unbilled Malcolm McDowell) hasn’t much to do. Leading lady Mila Kunis, cast as Beals’ daughter and Eli’s wouldbe sidekick, has too much to do, and the character’s overwhelming naivet’ — especially when dealing with the overtly nasty Carnegie — is silly in the extreme, although it does propel the plot, such as it is, toward its conclusion. In addition, the film takes itself way too seriously to be much fun, although there are some decent bits of action along the way.

As post-apocalyptic futures go, The Book of Eli isn’t a particularly nice place to visit… and you sure wouldn’t want to live there, either. This isn’t really a bad film, but it’s never a good film, either. Tolerable will suffice.

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