Monday, 22 March 2010

'Crazy Heart' review: Wrestler lite

In one of the very first shots of 'Crazy Heart' Jeff Bridges tells us that he hates bowling. As good as it is to see him revisit the bowling alley here he is, of course, being "very un-dude" and making it clear from the outset that his Oscar-winning turn as an alcoholic, down-on-his-luck, country singer known as Bad Blake is different from his now iconic turn in ‘The Big Lebowski’. Indeed, Bad Blake is not so easy going and, more importantly, he is less content with his lot in life, harbouring bitterness that he is poor and playing to small crowds whilst the younger Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell) enjoys far greater success.

Much like other recent films about musicians (such as ‘Nowhere Boy’, ‘Dreamgirls’ or ‘Walk the Line’) ‘Crazy Heart’ is at its most effective when conveying the energy of live performance, with Jeff Bridges and Colin Farrell impressing greatly as singers. I am not a fan of country music by any means, but ‘Crazy Heart’ manages to convincingly show us country music as something approaching white blues music rather than Billy Ray Cyrus-style cheese. Credit for this must go to T-Bone Burnett, who wrote many of the songs in Bad Blake’s repertoire, all of which convince as the memorable country standards we are told they have become within the film. Bridges is an electric presence as Blake on stage, and a duet with Tommy Sweet at the film’s midway point is arguably the film’s highlight (I wanted to cheer at its conclusion as though I were at a real concert).

The second half of the film, which concerns Blake’s relationship with a young, single-mum called Jean (played by Maggie Gyllenhaal), is much less appealing as it pulls us away from the stage and into movie cliché territory. Jean castigates Blake at one point by saying that he’s let her down like every man has before, which made me cringe, whilst (potential spoiler) Blake easily overcomes his years of alcoholism within two scenes late in the film. ‘Crazy Heart’ also presents Jean as a typical Hollywood movie single mum, in that despite the fact she has a fairly low income job (as a local journalist) she owns a pretty nice house and has no problem juggling a career with providing for her son (in a way reminiscent of Rene Zellweger’s character in ‘Jerry Maguire’). Blake’s poverty is similarly non-existent as, despite the fact that he tells us early on that he has ten dollars to his name; he also seems to get along fairly comfortably. America, it seems, is a good place to be poor.

This lack of any social realist elements is perhaps the film’s main problem, as whilst Aronofsky’s ‘The Wrestler’ deals with many of the same themes and issues as ‘Crazy Heart’ (right down to the detail that both include a plot thread about an estranged father begging for redemption), it does so with a cynicism and a seedy, gritty edge, which is lacking here. One interesting scene cuts between Blake’s fairly simple abode and the glamorous home of his LA agent, as they speak on the telephone, but whilst the contrast raises interesting questions about Blake’s exploitation (again like ‘The Wrestler’) none of these are really answered.

In the end (major spoiler) Blake gets sober, writes a big song and makes a ton of money, with one of the films closing scenes featuring Blake in happy conversation with his agent, who it seems has the right idea about life: in ‘Crazy Heart’ Blake’s lack of success is his own fault and when he changes his outlook, he becomes free to set about living the American Dream which is (as always) purely financial. Mickey Rourke’s wrestler is spat out, exploited and abused by American society which lets him down just as much as his own messed-up personality. ‘Crazy Heart’ is the more palatable film for audiences, but it is arguably a less honest one for it.

In fairness, the first half of ‘Crazy Heart’ was one of the most enjoyable times I have had in a cinema this year so far. Whatever its flaws, the film boasts a great soundtrack, some stunning performances and has provided one of my favourite actors with a plethora of well-deserved awards. If you are a fan of Jeff Bridges or country music and want to watch a lighter, less socially conscious version of ‘The Wrestler’, then ‘Crazy Heart’ is the film for you!

'Crazy Heart' is still playing across the country and until this Thursday at the Duke of York's in Brighton. It is rated '15' by the BBFC.

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