Fear and Whiskey

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In “Crazy Heart” (directed by Scott Cooper, Butcher’s Run Films, 2010, 112 minutes), Bad Black (Jeff Bridges) is a country singer whose albums once topped the charts. Now he performs in bowling alleys and country bars, using local pick-up bands as his back-up musicians and staying in seedy motels. He’s a chain-smoking alcoholic who drives himself to one-night-stands in his 1978 Silverado, relieving himself in a milk jug because he’s too lazy to pull over and find a bathroom. “I ain’t never missed a show,” he tells the anxious leader of the latest band as he arrives just before showtime, pukes in the garbage can, and enters the stage door. His fans applaud appreciatively as he walks onstage, and for good reason: his talent is still there, and his music is still strong.

Bad Black is a “functioning alcoholic” who is able to drive, communicate, and perform even when he has been drinking all day. This functionality places him in denial about his alcoholism and what it is doing to his body, his relationships, and his career. He recognizes that his career is waning, but he blames the unfair rise to stardom of his former protege, Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell) and Tommy’s unwillingness to record a duet album that would put Bad back on the charts.

This attitude begins to change when Bad meets Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a music journalist who asks to interview him. For some reason, perhaps because she sees him through the lens of his past glory, she is able to look past the craggy beard, stringy hair, stinky breath, and squalid surroundings to fall for him. Bad is also charmed by Jean and by her darling 4-year-old boy, Buddy (Jack Nation). She makes him want to be better.

But Bad’s an alcoholic, and alcohol- ics have only one true relationship: with the bottle. After a frightening experience involving little Buddy (one has to wonder what kind of mother would be foolish enough to leave her son with an alcoholic . . . but women in love often do foolish things), Bad hits rock bot- tom and gains the courage to say, for himself, “I want to get sober.” “Crazy Heart” never implies that getting sober is easy, only that it’s worth it. This is a tale of redemption, not of squalor, and it is told with honesty.

This familiar storyline could have made the film hokey, sentimental, and predictable. But “Crazy Heart” never falls short of wonderful, largely because of the brilliant performance of Jeff Bridges. One simply forgets that he is an actor playing a part. Anyone who has had the misfortune of dealing with a chronic alcoholic will recognize the perfection of his portrayal – the swagger that hides the drunken walk, the deep-cheeked draw on the cigarette, the protective manner in which he carries a glass of whiskey. Watch for the way he balances a drink nonchalantly on his chest while he talks with Jean on his motel bed, then deftly moves it to the night stand with a quick under- handed twist of his wrist that keeps the ‘glass completely level, not risking a drop. For an alcoholic, the whiskey glass and the cigarette are permanent, sentient appendages.

Production values of the film are top quality. Cinematographer Barry Markowitz takes full advantage of the New Mexico landscape, with its rising red mesas, wide skies, and soothing sunsets. The supporting cast provide rich characterizations, including Robert Duvall as Bad’s longtime friend Wayne. But these performances are mere similes to Bridges’ metaphor; the others act their parts well, but Jeff Bridges is Bad Black.

The quality of the musical score is also something special. Bad Black is a songwriter, not just a singer, so a believable soundtrack was essential to the film. Grammy winner T. Bone Burnett (“0 Brother, Where Art Thou?”) pro- vides a dozen original songs that more than justify the film’s premise that Bad Black’s tarnished star is worth polish- ing. If I have one complaint, it is that the film cuts away from the songs too soon. This is a soundtrack worth owning.

Scott Cooper wrote, directed, and produced this film. His family members are listed in the acknowledgements. When I see this kind of dedication to a project in the credits, I know the film- maker is driven by an overwhelming belief in what he is trying to do. Cooper has heart, crazy heart, and it shows throughout this excellent film.

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