Crazy Heart turns mic over to Jeff Bridges' rambling man

Bridges taps his laid-back charisma as a country music has-been so effectively that it's easy to overlook the film's recycled material

About halfway through Crazy Heart, country music legend/has-been Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges) identifies the endearing immediacy of classic songs: "That's the way it is with good ones – you're sure you've heard them before." The rule doesn't go both ways, however. Some tunes that sound familiar might just be cribbed from earlier, better singles.

Initially Crazy Heart sounds like a song you've heard before, and it's hard to tell whether it's due to the universality of its themes or the weariness of its clichés. Crazy Heart covers well-worked ground as a redemption drama about a down-and-out artist who finds a new start thanks to the love of a good woman. Bridges taps his innate, laid-back charisma as Bad Blake so effectively it's easy to overlook the film's recycled material, at least until the last act.

Adapting Thomas Cobb's 1987 novel, writer/director Scott Cooper begins with a finely detailed snapshot of the demands of life on the road. Bad drives hundreds of miles across the Southwest between gigs, where he fronts pick-up bands he's never met and doesn't bother to rehearse with. In the first scene, he arrives for a one-night stand at a bowling alley bar called the Spare Room, where he pukes drunkenly mid-set, but still beds the world's oldest groupie afterward. Cooper winks to The Big Lebowski by giving Bridges a backdrop of bowling lanes and a drink in his hand. With a scraggly beard, mussed-up gray hair and more than a few extra pounds, Bridges appears to be aging into a twin of Kris Kristofferson, which helps make him a convincing veteran country singer/songwriter.

At a stopover in Santa Fe, he grants an interview to Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a young journalist and single mom whose flirtations knock him out of his booze-and-broads routine. She even influences his stage performances. Bridges croaks his first numbers with little energy before the audience, but turns feisty and hearty after meeting Jean. Producer T-Bone Burnett provides songs that pass well enough as Bad Blake's signature tunes, even though their lyrics and Bridges' voice aren't really worthy of the Country Music Hall of Fame. Bridges' best musical moment comes with the haunting, folksy "Brand New Angel" near the end of the film.

Along with his new romance with Jean, Bad wrestles with a longstanding feud with his former protégé Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), a pony-tailed, earringed superstar. Rather than make Tony a caricature of a C&W sellout, Farrell conveys the younger man's sense of guilt and respect for his elder. Bridges tempers Bad's resentment with the awareness that Tommy represents a ticket back to Nashville's good graces. When Bad opens for Tommy and the younger singer comes out for an unexpected duet, Crazy Heart nicely shows the mix of affronted showbiz ego and good ol' boy courtesy.

Crazy Heart resounds most forcefully when it explores the music industry and the idea that country's old-timers were shunned by the record labels with the rise of younger acts in the Garth Brooks generation. Unfortunately, the musical motifs fade out in the second half as Cooper ups the levels on Bad's alcoholism and relationship with Jean. Gyllenhaal captures Jean's ambivalence, in that she feels at ease with Bad, enjoys his scruffy glamour, and appreciates his fondness for her 4-year-old son. She's also understandably leery of forming strong ties with an oft-married, hard-living musician. He's a legend, but hardly a catch.

The film resorts to a sequence with a lost child to manipulate the audience, and merely coasts with scenes involving AA meetings and heavily symbolic housecleanings. As Bad's old fishing buddy, Robert Duvall reminds audiences too much of Tender Mercies, his 1983 Oscar-winning turn as a former country music star recovering from alcoholism. Crazy Heart could earn Bridges his own Academy Award, but less for his admittedly fine performance than his estimable, lifelong body of work. Playing a neglected celebrity at the twilight of his career nudges viewers to remember Bridges' greatest hits, and it's easy to imagine the Academy voters honoring the actor as a way of asking for an encore.