In a sweet respite from the avalanche of suck that's buried me in my last few trips to the multiplex, Crazy Heart is a blast of fresh air. A York Peppermint Patty on celluloid.
Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges) is an alcoholic country singer, who has fallen from the giddy heights of stardom and now scrapes out a meager living traversing the Southwest in his beat-up truck, playing dive bars and bowling alleys.
Blake has four wives under his belt, an agent who's trying to convince him to write songs again--if he ever wants to make real money again--and he lives in the shadow of his former protégé Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), whom Blake taught everything he knows. Sweet ran with his music, though, and achieved a level of success that Blake only vaguely remembers.
At one of his bar gigs, he meets Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal) a young reporter who wants to interview Blake about his life and music. They quickly become attracted to each other, and Blake begins to see a second chance at life he never thought he'd get. Soon enough, though, his demons threaten to destroy his chance for happiness.
Written and directed by Scott Cooper (and based on the book of the same name) Crazy Heart won't set any records for originality, but the film's easy-going pace and emotional honesty, along with a career defining performance from Jeff Bridges, elevate the movie above its scant plotting.
Cooper elicits a mournful tone from the desert landscapes, the dingy motel rooms and the smoky bars, which is all mirrored by the music and the lines of age and regret that adorn Bridges' hound-dog face.
Thematically, the most obvious comparison would be last year's The Wrestler, a story of redemption for a man who's seen enough pain and only finds solace in the approbation of his fans. And like that film, it is its central performance that takes an overly familiar story and turns it into something special.
But the fact is that it's fairly well-worn material that does wrap things up too neatly with what I felt was an unnecessary epilogue. In fact, when the screen went black at what I hoped was the film's end (because it felt like the natural place for it to end, not because of tedium), someone in the packed house blurted out, "That's it?" (I felt like explaining to her that sometimes dotting all your "I's" and crossing all your "T's" can hurt a film.)
Crazy Heart trusted the audience pretty far with its unhurried pace, content to dwell with and explore these people, and I just wish it would have committed to leaving Bad Blake's future to the imagination. That would have really completed what felt like an ethereal experience.
It's a fault that's easy to forgive considering the amazing performance from Jeff Bridges. As Bad Blake, Bridges delivers in a way that assures Oscar consideration (as of this writing, he's already picked up a Golden Globe). Between his flabby alcoholic paunch, whiskey sweat and grizzled countenance, his entire body tells Blake's story in ways words would fail, unless they are the lyrics to his songs. It almost felt like you were living with him.
Then there's the music, penned by the legendary T. Bone Burnett and performed very ably by Bridges. It's good old school country in the vein of Merle Haggard and Kris Kristofferson (upon whom the character of Bad Blake is partially based), and Bridges probably has a second career on his hands if he chooses to go that route. Nothing takes me out of a movie about a musician faster than when it's plain the actor portraying him or her is not performing the music. Thankfully, Bridges fills out the triplex of his great performance with his assured crooning and warm guitar tones that seem to have been recorded live.
Supporting roles are good as well, with Maggie Gyllenhaal shining as Jean. She sees the beauty in Blake's worn features and falls in love with the damaged beauty of his tired soul. You can see her opening up despite her trepidation and, like Bridges, she can travel through a range of emotions in just a few glances. Her wan, unconventional sexiness doesn't overpower the believability of her relationship with Bad Blake. She needs to work on her Oklahoma accent, though.
Colin Farrell has a smaller role as Tommy Sweet, adopting a Texas drawl and singing alongside Bridges in a great duet on the film's signature song, Fallin' and Flyin'. The nature of their relationship could easily have gone the easy route of antagonism, but all these characters are too genuinely written for such simplicity. It's another example of the film's emotional depth.
In a wasteland of derivative rom-com's, groan-inducing genre crap and snooze worthy studio sacrificial lambs, Crazy Heart is an oasis that shouldn't be missed.
Don't Try Rome
When in Rome is the kind of movie I would have forgotten about maybe 30 or 40 seconds after I had seen it, if I didn't have to write about it. Actually, it's a movie I wouldn't have seen in the first place, if I didn't have to write about it.
Still, in the realm of formulaic romantic comedies, it wasn't the worst thing I've ever seen. How's that for a ringing endorsement?
Beth (Kristen Bell) is an unlucky-in-love curator for the Guggenheim Museum, in the midst of putting together an important show, when she gets word that her sister, Joan (Alexis Dziena), is about to marry a guy she met on a trip to Italy--after having known each other for a mere two weeks.
Dropping everything, she flies to Italy for the blessed event where she meets Nick (Josh Duhamel), a sports writer whose budding football career was cut short when he was struck by lightning (Yes, you read that right) and charming hunk who immediately strikes up a rapport with the klutzy Beth.
After inadvertently spying Nick sneaking a kiss from a raven-haired beauty, Beth, fueled by more than a little champagne, romps around in a fountain that people toss coins into and wish for true love. Beth removes five of them, hoping that their intended wishes will bring the lovelorn Beth romantic solace.
Unbeknownst to her though, the fountain is actually magical and taking the coins earns her a quadruplet of smitten suitors who chase her all over New York and engage in fruitless attempts to win Beth's heart, while Nick's amore for Beth might or might not be influenced by a poker chip she also took from the fountain.
The oddball troupe of romantic hopefuls include Jon Heder as Lance, a street magician who uses his tricks to woo Beth; Dax Shepard as Gale, a narcissistic body builder who's sure his ripped torso will do the trick; Will Arnett as Antonio, an Italian artist who actually follows her back from Italy; and Danny DeVito as Al Russo, a ... well, I'm not too sure what he had going for him outside of being Danny DeVito.
The (only) funny thing about When in Rome is that there's actually a pretty high caliber set of comedic guns on display--and that includes Bell--though Heder doesn't impress, and his appeal baffles me (while Napoleon Dynamite fans, another baffling group, will rejoice for a certain cameo). It's just sad that the rote, vanilla suffocatingly predictable screenplay sidelines most of them. I mean, sure we all know how this thing is going to end, but I actually identified the actual plot devices that would bring about the wholly expected ending within the first 10 minutes of the movie.
The pedestrian script by David Diamond and David Weissman is directed with minimal flair by Mark Steven Johnson (Daredevil, Ghost Rider), though the film looks pretty enough thanks to some decent cinematography by John Bailey. Kristen Bell's ease on the eyes doesn't hurt much, and I imagine the same would be true for the ladies and Josh Duhamel.
Speaking of the cast, Bell and Duhamel make affable enough leads (though his friend Puck, played by SNL alum Bobby Moynihan grated my nerves. I wouldn't have imagined a more annoying version of Kevin James were possible), and seem to have a genuine chemistry.
Bell has a Christina Applegate-like comic timing that would be better served by some actually funny material, though most of the chuckles come from Dax Shepard and Will Arnett who are really going to town in the manic absurdity department.
Danny DeVito is a sweetheart as Al Russo, though to be honest I was having a hard time figuring out why he was in the movie at all if the film wasn't going to utilize his inherent insanity. If he had played Russo like Louie from Taxi, he could have easily stolen the entire flick.
It's not as though they weren't swinging for the fences, and I can't fault When in Rome for not trying to entertain--just for failing much more than it succeeds.
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