By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 8, 2010; WE27
You don't have to be a fan of Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, Merle Haggard, Townes Van Zandt, Doug Sahm and sundry other Texans and twangers to love "Crazy Heart." But it sure can't hurt.
All those musicians are invoked by Jeff Bridges in this lovely, bittersweet romantic drama, in which he virtually channels country music's most storied outlaws, rule-benders and heartbreakers. Bridges plays Bad Blake, a grizzled singer-songwriter now performing on the Southwestern bowling alley circuit. Watching Bad on his way down makes for a pitiful sight, especially when he shows up drunk for a gig and momentarily leaves the stage to throw up in a garbage can.
But thanks to a compassionate, self-aware performance by Bridges and the superbly restrained filmmaking of first-time writer-director Scott Cooper, "Crazy Heart" never wallows in self-pity or romanticized excess. Rather, it takes Bad and the audience on a thoroughly surprising and ultimately cheering journey, as he finds his hard-living ways challenged by a single mom, played with equal parts vulnerability and grit by Maggie Gyllenhaal.
There are many reasons to admire "Crazy Heart," chiefly a performance from Bridges that stands as a quiet triumph within one of Hollywood's most durable and consistent careers, while making subtle nods to the actor's best-loved characters. ("The Big Lebowski's" Dude is somewhere behind Bad's opaque aviator shades, even if the singer's beverage of choice is whiskey rather than White Russians.)
But the virtues of "Crazy Heart" only begin with Bridges: Music fans will rejoice at the movie's songs (mostly written by T-Bone Burnett and the late Stephen Bruton); Robert Duvall fans will cheer yet another nuanced supporting performance from a great actor (and the movie's co-producer) who knows his way around a Billy Joe Shaver song; and movie fans will appreciate Cooper's ease with everything from tiny barroom shows to big concerts to intimate domestic scenes, all of which he stages with grace and authenticity. Go see "Crazy Heart." It might be the sanest thing you do this year.
*** R. At area theaters. Contains profanity and brief sexuality. 111 minutes.