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Off the Road Again

Jeff Bridges' colorful country character has a talent for getting wrecked in “Crazy Heart.”

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"I'm 57 years old and I'm broke.” It's a likely howl from any country-music singer, but it isn't part of one of Bad Blake's songs. A former star (Jeff Bridges) who's fallen on hard times, Bad — dusty and disoriented — is coming to terms with his latest venue, a bowling alley in the middle of nowhere, only to learn that his customary bar tab has been suspended.

These days Bad, an outlaw country artis evocative of Waylon Jennings or Kris Kristofferson, is more buzzed than bad, and his words, half threat, half plea to an unmoved manager (James Keane), evoke the comic tragedy of his circumstances. They also set the theme and tone of the movie, a tale of a man whose nature means fame and fortune at a younger age but ruin at an older one. Although the movie doesn't quite live up to its promise as a gut-wrenching soul-searcher, Bridges gives a great performance that lends both the stronger and the weaker moments a reliable, likeable beat.

Bad has seen better days when we find him playing random dives on a grueling tour. From certain angles it looks as though he has the enviable life of a performer on the road, with little responsibility besides showing up and staying upright — admittedly things Bad has difficulty with — and going home with the occasional groupie, even if she isn't always a spring chicken. Bad even has moments when he gets really lucky, as when he meets and manages to romance Jean, a younger woman and single mom — played by Maggie Gyllenhaal with a believable attitude of skeptical curiosity regarding Bad.

Their affair appears to lead Bad to a better life, but his habits soon get the better of him, putting everything he values in jeopardy. It's in this second act that “Crazy Heart” begins to pluck some unsatisfactory notes, even as Bridges, who lends his voice to much of the soundtrack, continues to carve a dependably ragged and individual character.

Others — including  Robert Duvall as Bad's oldest (only?) friend and Colin Farrell as a pony-tailed protAcgAc turned megastar — graciously play second fiddle to Bad, with Duvall's inclusion a possible nod to the character he played in the similar 1983 film “Tender Mercies.” The resemblance doesn't help him or anyone else do more than stand around looking perfunctory, however, one of a few indications that “Crazy Heart” is something of a star vehicle, no matter how well-starred.

That's not true during the movie's earliest scenes, before Bad takes one too many sips from a bottle on the way to see Jean, and before writer and director Scott Cooper turns his ensuing accident into a plot-driven investigation of Bad's lifestyle. Until then, Cooper's film is a more relaxed examination of Bad's character, its lengthy and rangy opening sequence dedicated to the loss of the cherished bar tab and the ensuing lost day that Cooper draws out like leisurely shots of whiskey.

Out of cash, Bad sells his fame to a fan for a bottle before brushing off his backing band's invitation to practice, feeling he's managed to salvage something of a nice afternoon even if we see both acts as the faults of a man imprisoned in the loneliness of alcoholism. Bad's last-minute appearance at the bowling-alley gig, nearly at the point of blacking out but able to turn in a show, is worth the price of admission.
 
Contrary to these indications, the more we learn about Bad the less bad we feel for him, which is especially odd given the movie's similarities to Darren Aronofsky and Robert D. Siegel's “The Wrestler.” There's even an estranged adult child in the back of Bad's mind, but the newer film never plumbs these depths with the same fearless curiosity. Indeed, about halfway in we're surprised to learn that Bad has quite a nice house, along with royalty income and a good fishing buddy. Maybe he pays out of pocket for doctor visits but he sure doesn't look broke.

At its best, “Crazy Heart” is like a classic country tune come to life. A comfortable and entertaining song of heartache, it's just less revealing than you might expect from all its qualities. The problem is in making a claim without having an answer to the question it begs. If Bad's gotten too old to be Bad, what happens to him if he learns to be good? (R) 111 min. HHHII

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