FILM “Oh, I love Jeff Bridges!” is the usual response when his name comes up every few years for Best Actor consideration, usually via some underdog movie no one saw, and the realization occurs that he’s never won an Oscar. (Unlike, say, Roberto Benigni.) It is often said with a guilty-sigh undertone otherwise reserved for neglected relatives or loyal but inconvenient friends — people you know you shouldn’t keep forgetting about.
The oversight is painful because it could be argued that no leading American actor has been more versatile, consistently good, and true to that elusive concept “artistic integrity” than Bridges over the last 40 years. When you think about more conspicuous “great” screen actors of his generation — DeNiro, Nicholson, Pacino, Hoffman — it’s hard to deny that they’ve long since fallen into shtick, caricature, and somnambulism in mostly unworthy vehicles, occasionally showing a flash of prime alertness.
Whereas Bridges never rested on his laurels, or lack thereof. Of course he had a great ’70s — who didn’t? — in movies widely acclaimed (1972’s Fat City, 1971’s The Last Picture Show), fascinatingly quirky (1976’s Stay Hungry, 1975’s Rancho Deluxe and Hearts of the West, 1974’s Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, 1979’s Winter Kills), or just lucky to have him (the ’76 King Kong, 1978 Farrah Fawcett vehicle Somebody Killed Her Husband).
But while other stars caved to the more formulaic commerciality of the 1980s and onward, Jeff Bridges managed his career as before, mixing rare commercial hits (1985’s Jagged Edge, 1991’s The Fisher King, and 1984’s Starman — in which he’s an alien sweeter and surely sexier than E.T.) with mainstream bunts (1996’s The Mirror Has Two Faces, 1996’s White Squall, 1982’s beloved TRON). Not to mention the many, variably unpopular, cult-accruing smaller films he’s spectacular in: Cutter’s Way (1981), American Heart (1992), Fearless (1993), The Big Lebowski (1998), Simpatico (1999), and The Door in the Floor (2004). All Oscar-worthy performances, but Oscar seldom embraces flops, sleepers, and critics’ case-pleadings — the latest of which would be Crazy Heart.
It’s rumored this movie was slotted for cable or DVD premiere, then thrust into late-year theater release in hopes of attracting Best Actor momentum within a crowded field. (It’s a much more paltry year for actresses, as usual). Lucky for us, this performance shouldn’t be overlooked. Bridges plays “Bad” Blake, a veteran country star reduced to playing bars with local pickup bands. His slide from grace hasn’t been helped by lingering tastes for smoke and drink, let alone five defunct marriages.
In Houston he meets Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal), freelance journalist, fan, and single mother. They spark; though burnt by prior relationships, she’s reluctant to take seriously a famous drunk twice her age — even if he charms both mom and four-year-old tyke (the improbably named Jack Nation). Can Bad handle even this much responsibility?
Meanwhile, he gets his “comeback” break in the semi-humiliating form of opening for Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell) — a ponytailed, stadium-playing contemporary country superstar who was once Bad’s backup boy. Tommy offers a belated shot at commercial redemption; Jean offers redemption of the strictly personal kind.
Bridges and Farrell can both really sing. (The former has long been a singer-songwriter-guitarist, though a pretty dull one.) Robert Duvall can’t, but then as producer and excellent support player (Bad’s old barkeep friend), he’s allowed some self-indulgence.
There’s nothing too surprising about the ways in which Crazy Heart both follows and finesses formula. You’ve seen this preordained road from wreckage to redemption before. But actor turned first-time director Scott Cooper’s screenplay honors the flies in the windshield inherited from Thomas Cobb’s novel.
As does Bridges, needless to say. Here he’s fleshy, hairy, wheezy — well-intentioned, but charming and untrustworthy at once. He rules an otherwise ordinary film like Mickey Rourke did 2008’s The Wrestler. But here’s guessing the relative lack of flamboyance (or salvation from the skids) won’t do Jeff Bridges similar favors. Again.
CRAZY HEART opens Fri/25 in San Francisco.