“It’s so unfair,” laments Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal), “Some people give 10 years of their life to do something like that and it just pours out of you.” Looking at her new-maybe and currently laid-up boyfriend, the country songwriter and singer Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges), she bursts into tears. He’s stunned, as he’s only been doing what he’s always done, composing a tune on his guitar while flat on his back, drunk and busted up. She sobs that just watching this creation is remarkable for her, even though she knows that in a few days he’ll be back on the road and won’t remember her or the song, precisely because for him, it’s nothing special.
In this brief exchange, Crazy Heart complicates its focus, which otherwise has seemed a little simple. So far, Scott Cooper’s movie, based on a novel by Thomas Cobb, has been following the unlikely and sometimes difficult romance between Bad and Jean. He’s an old-school country singer (“influenced by the blues,” he says) and she’s an aspiring music journalist. When he rolls through Santa Fe, where she lives with her four-year-old, Buddy (Jack Nation), Bad grants her a rare interview. They flirt, he’s moved, and she appreciates his morning-after attentions to Buddy, when he invites himself over to her house to fix biscuits for breakfast.
Though Jean knows better, she’s drawn to Bad, who’s vaguely charming and seemingly vulnerable even when he’s plainly manipulative and self-interested. Like many women before her (he’s been married four times), she’s also drawn to his genius — the ease with which he makes art, which she notes in the scene described above, as well as the art he makes (songs written by T-Bone Burnett, one of the film’s producers, with Stephen Bruton). And even as she’s mystified and infuriated by Bad’s carelessness with his gift and good fortune, Jean is also well aware of the cliché he embodies: the celebrity addict, brilliantly charismatic, used to getting what he wants, and constitutionally undependable. As she resists becoming a cliché herself, the film considers the forms and functions of art, particularly art in a commercial world.
This focus is filtered through 57-year-old Bad’s coming to self-awareness. The reason he’s laid up at Jean’s is that he’s driven his ’78 Suburban off the road. On top of the broken ankle he’s suffered — which puts him on symbolic crutches — he’s confronted with what his doctor calls “your general condition, or your extreme lack of it.” The doctor lists the afflictions lurking inside him him, that is, “emphysema, heart failure, cancer, and an extremely good chance of a stroke,” and tells him to stop smoking and drinking and eating lousy food. But even as he advises Bad to “lose 25 pounds,” you and he know there’s no chance any of it will happen. Bad’s art is shaped by his good-ol’-boyish recklessness. His primary commitments are to his Fender Tremolux and the next bottle of McClure’s. He can’t imagine another way to be.
As he comes to face consequences of this recklessness, Bad sees that his badness — his success and also the limits on it — are also shaped by the business he’s in. Now that he’s long since past his commercial prime, Bad is confronted with the unfairness of that business: the young artist he once mentored, Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), is now a superstar and Bad resents it. When Jean includes questions about the much more famous Tommy during her first interview with Bad (“Is Tommy Sweet real country?”), he puts her off, turning instead to his own well-rehearsed charms and predictable interests, that is, he says, “How bad you made this room look. I never knew how bad it looked before you walked into it.”
Corny as it may be, she blushes at the line (then reveals her own charms as she explains, “I can’t help it, my capillaries are close to my skin”). But even as Jean understands Bad’s willful disinterest in Tommy’s career, she can’t know the depth of their relationship — the years they spent together on the road, the younger man’s ascent and sell-out, Bad’s self-destruction. When Bad’s manager Jack (Paul Herman) gets him a gig opening for Tommy in front of 12,000 people, he can’t refuse. He is, after all, desperate for money, currently playing bowling alleys and back-alley saloons with local backup bands.
When they meet again, Tommy’s respectful, acknowledging the debt he owes in the way he hangs his head and tries to alert a slavering fan to that debt (“This is the autograph you need”), but also terminally self-interested. When he and his label offer Bad a songwriting contract (“Here’s a way you can make some money if you want to”), the older artist resists but sees the kid is right too. Whatever efforts at redemption he’ll make in order to bring the film to its (not completely predictable) end, Bad gets what’s at stake in his art as well as his business. And that insight — in addition to the much-praised and genuinely lovely performances by Bridges and Gyllenhaal — makes Crazy Heart something special.