I knew I wanted to watch Crazy Heart (trailer above) — Jeff Bridges won the Academy Award, it was well-reviewed, Ryan Bingham is in it and sings the theme — but I was also hesitant. It’s about an aging alcoholic singer-songwriter, so it might be a terribly tragic and depressing picture.

As it turns out, though, nothing overly horrible happens. In fact, Crazy Heart barely even has a story. It’s primarily a character study — a chance to hang out in cheap motel rooms with a smelly old drunk who remains an object of affection for a small following of nostalgic fans.

Jeff Bridges plays Bad Blake, a whiskey-weakened country music singer still on the road in his 1978 Chevrolet Suburban, playing one-night stands in the American southwest many years after the success of the hit songs he has written. To drive home just how low his star has sunk, Crazy Heart opens with Bad Blake playing the lounge of some dusty bowling alley.

A musician Blake once tutored (Colin Farrell as Tommy Sweet) has gone on to country music stardom. He would still like to help Blake climb back up, but the old master is hobbled by his liquid ball and chain. Blake hasn’t written anything in years, his performances are sloppy, his personal life is a shambles, and his health is deteriorating. Bridges does a fine job conveying the vertigo, congestion, and nausea of an incessant drinker.

Co-starring as The Girl is Maggie Gyllenhaal. Jean Craddock is a single parent who writes for a local entertainment paper. Blake grants her an interview, there is mutual intrigue, and so on. Gyllenhaal was herself nominated for an Academy Award, and she does fill her sketchy role with some very solid personality and emotion.

Ryan Bingham shows promising presence in his cameo as the leader of Blake’s pickup band at the bowling alley. Robert Duvall is fairly electrifying in his small part as a key friend of Bad Blake. The only real clunker is Sopranos/Goodfellas character actor Paul Herman as Blake’s stereotypical, L.A.-based agent/manager. Oh, and Jean has a four-year-old son, Buddy.

Unfortunately, the crusty/grizzled nature of Bad Blake is not seasoned much with complemental emotions (although he does show a strong sense of panic at one point). Nevertheless, Bridges’ and Gyllenhaal’s performances are outstanding work. They turn what might otherwise be a Hallmark TV movie into a deeper portrait.

I rate Crazy Heart three out of four stars.

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