Dec 18, 2009

The Dude Abides

I don't think the Oscars have ever broken my heart more (in a long history of absurd expectations from my part) than when Jeff Bridges was not even nominated for The Dude in The Big Lebowski, one of the most magnificent comedic performances of all time.  Now it's time for redress.

Jeff Bridges is quintessentially American. You could not confuse him for anything but. He could be the living embodiment of the state of California. But in movies like The Big Lebowski, The Fabulous Baker Boys, and now Crazy Heart, he is the American who fails at being American. He fails at success. But he has also played, equally well, Americans who succeed (or at least try, like in Tucker), or in Seabiscuit. He has also, magnificently, played an alien, in Starman. Whether he is a magnate or a bum or from outer space, he is always totally believable. And this is because he is one of the most psychologically intelligent actors we have. Plus, he has charisma and sexiness to no end.
Jeff Bridges is, like Gene Hackman, one of those actors in whom you cannot see the acting wheels turning (as opposed to other great actors like De Niro, Pacino and Sean Penn). He's not showy, does not call attention to himself with big dramatic gestures. He just is. Whatever it is he does, he invests the characters with a strong and psychologically sound core.
In Crazy Heart he plays Bad Blake, an aging, disillusioned Country music star who has just given up. He is broke, playing dumps and drunk. We've all seen that one before. But there is a character in this man. He is pathetic but there is no self pity in him. There is rather an ornery pride in keeping life from intruding on his self-destruction, which he indulges with wonderful panache. Bridges is the absolute master of the who gives a fuck attitude. In this case, he is not a benign fuck up, like The Dude. He is a proud, yet insolvent, drunk. He looks like shit and feels like shit and is so down on himself that he shows no respect for the audience anymore, he can't see why they like him.
Bridges so totally owns the performance that you forget he is acting. He is not a convincing drunk. He is a drunk. Alcoholics are showpieces for actors, but I think they are very hard to fake. This man here is a full blown, fighting alcoholic. He refuses to be pathetic, he is just proud and extremely out of touch with life. That's the drunk part. Then there is the Country singer part.  His singing voice is not big, but it is fine and it has heart. He plays guitar well too, but what amazed me was how he behaved on stage: like a man who has played music in front of people for ages.
The movie is a big cliché. It's not a bad cliché, and it has some great moments, but also some groaners. Bad has not spoken to his son since the kid was four, he has made mistakes, etc. In less capable hands, it could have been painful, but Bridges refuses to let Bad down easy. He barely registers hurt, yet, you can feel it swimming in liquor somewhere down there, bubbling up to the surface quiety, devastatingly, as yet another awful disappointment.
And then there is that speaking Bridges voice of honey and whisky and ash. There is a wonderful scene where he gets to play a big venue and he has a pissing match with the sound engineer. Bad is not about to become all meek and cooperative just because someone is giving him a chance. Half the scene is played with the camera behind him, but everything is in the voice: tired, knowing, ironic, proud, stubborn, insistent. "I'm an old man", he says in the end, "humor me."
There is a lot of wonderful talent at the service of a movie that were it not for it, could be quite pedestrian. Maggie Gyllenhaal is very good (though in some scenes, annoyingly mannered) as Bad's love interest. They have a wonderful chemistry, and real intimacy. Robert Duvall plays Bad's old friend. The two of them together are a wonder to behold. The music by T Bone Burnett and Stephen Bruton is excellent.
But there are misses. Colin Farrell shows his lack of chops, playing a Billy Ray Cyrus kind of country star. Next to Bridges, he doesn't quite cut the mustard. The little kid that plays Gyllenhaal's son is annoying and hammy. These are problems of direction.
Then there are problems of writing. If an alcoholic decides to quit the booze, this is as heroic as it gets. There is no further need to redeem himself. But the movie ends with a really corny coda that is totally unnecessary and strained. Had it ended with Bad playing his new song quietly in his porch, it would have been more true to the authenticity and the generosity of so much talent.

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