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March 2010

Scene4 Magazine: Miles David Moore reviews "Crazy Heart", "A Single Man" and "It's Complicated"

by Miles David Moore

Now that most Baby Boomers are sporting AARP membership cards, you can bet mid-life crises will be a popular theme for movies for years to come.  Three recent films—Scott Cooper's Crazy Heart, Tom Ford's A Single Man, and Nancy Meyers' It's Complicated—feature three wildly different protagonists, each reaching a particularly thorny mid-life quandary.  None of the films is perfect, but all are worth seeing, thanks largely to lead performances by three great actors at the height of their talents.

Two of the films are by first-time director-screenwriters.  Crazy Heart is the work of Scott Cooper, an actor probably best known for his featured role in the TV miniseries Broken Trail.  Cooper's screenplay, based on a novel by Thomas Cobb, depicts the career low of Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges), a fifty-seven-year-old country singer and onetime superstar now reduced to playing bowling alleys and driving from gig to gig in his battered truck. Bad is so poor he can't afford his favorite bourbon, but there are still fans along the way who are willing to buy it for him, and who forgive him when his pickup band of the evening sings all the requests while Bad's in the back throwing up.

One night in Santa Fe, Bad's keyboard player for the evening tells him of his niece, who wants to interview him for the local paper. The niece, Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal), turns out to be attractive in a kittenish way, ambitious yet sweet-natured, and with a little son she dotes on.  It takes about three minutes of screen time for Bad and Jean to become an item, and the question of course is whether Bad's love for Jean and her son Buddy is enough to get him to reform his outlaw ways.  In episodic fashion, the story traces Bad's sputtering life and career; his encounters with Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), a newly minted superstar who used to be in Bad's band; and his relationship with Jean and Buddy.  However, a near-tragedy three-fourths of the way through the movie sends the story in a new—if not unexpected--direction.


The basic plot of Crazy Heart will remind more than one audience member of the all-time-great movie about a country singer on the skids, Tender Mercies.  The comparison is reinforced by the presence of Robert Duvall, who won as Oscar for Tender Mercies, as co-star and co-producer of Crazy Heart.  (Duvall was also the star of Broken Trail.)  Bad Blake, however, has less in common with Tender Mercies' Mac Sledge than he does with a character in a more recent movie: Randy Robinson, the hard-living protagonist played by Mickey Rourke in Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler.  Like Randy, Bad has screwed up his life in every way possible, but cannot imagine a life other than the one he has lived for decades.  Bad's life ends up taking a different turn from either Mac's or Randy's, and that is where Crazy Heart goes wrong.  Tender Mercies begins with the rock-bottom night of Mac's life, and the entire movie is about how he tries to stay sober, rebuild his life and right some of the wrongs he committed while living in the bottom of a whiskey bottle.  The Wrestler, even more daringly, shows Randy failing in his attempts to reform himself, but gives him credit for integrity in remaining a bad boy to the end.  Crazy Heart chooses a middle way for Bad. But that middle way, unfortunately, is the typical way in Hollywood movies about wastrels seeking to turn their lives around, and therefore Crazy Heart feels more clichéd than either Tender Mercies or The Wrestler.

Fortunately, Jeff Bridges' performance as Bad Blake is anything but a cliché.  Now sixty, Bridges has been a major actor since he was twenty-two and received his first Oscar nomination for The Last Picture Show.  While he, unlike Bad, has never quite become a superstar, he has been a spectacularly welcome presence in movies ranging from Starman to The Fabulous Baker Boys to The Big Lebowski (the last probably the most beloved movie of his career).  Playing characters good, bad, or indifferent, Bridges has always projected the centered calm of a man completely at home in his own skin.  As Bad Blake, Bridges has never seemed more at home on the screen, he is so real, so transparent, so completely queued into Bad's thoughts and feelings that he doesn't seem to be acting at all.  He just is.


All the performances in Crazy Heart are good, though I wish Cooper had done a little more to individualize the character of Jean as written.  The songs—by T-Bone Burnett, the late Stephen Bruton, and others—are excellent, authentic country, and Bridges and Farrell sound mighty good singing them.

A Single Man is a vastly different kind of movie from Crazy Heart, made by a totally different kind of first-time director from Scott Cooper: fashion designer Tom Ford, who wrote the screenplay for A Single Man with David Scearce, based on a 1964 novel by Christopher Isherwood.  George Falconer (Colin Firth), the protagonist of A Single Man, is incomparably better educated and more gentlemanly than Bad Blake.  But George is even more troubled than Bad—and also far less acceptable to mainstream society, particularly at the time the movie is set.

A Single Man takes place in the course of one day—Nov. 30, 1962, a bare month after the Cuban missile crisis.  Peripheral characters are obsessed with communism and bomb shelters, but the love that dare not speak its name is a horror too great to even think about. George, a literature professor at UCLA (apparently one with family money, given his Mercedes and Frank Lloyd Wright-style house), has come to a decision: today is the day he will kill himself.

George has been at loose ends since his longtime lover Jim (Matthew Goode) was killed in an auto accident, eight months before, while visiting family.  Jim's family didn't even see fit to notify George of Jim's death; it is only through a secret phone call from one of Jim's cousins (the voice of an uncredited Jon Hamm) that he learned of it.  Yet George dreams of coming across Jim's wrecked car and kissing his lifeless face; he also dreams of floundering, naked and helpless, in deep water.

A Single Man captures succinctly the humiliations of being gay in the early 1960s.  "My father says you're light in the loafers, but you always wear wingtips," a neighbor girl tells George at one point.  There is no one in whom George can confide; at one point he pays a rent boy (Jon Kortajarena) just to talk to him.  Charly (Julianne Moore), the divorced woman who lives next door, comforted George in more ways than one when Jim died.  Yet even she refuses to listen to George when he says, "I sleep with women, but I fall in love with men."  At one point, knowing better, she dares to suggest that what George has with her is far more real than anything he ever had with Jim.  Meanwhile, one of George's students, Kenny (Nicholas Hoult), keeps pestering him with weighted questions, such as if he's ever tried drugs.


And always there are the memories of Jim, far happier and more vivid than anything in George's current life.  Those memories torture George as he writes his suicide note and lays out the clothes he wants to be buried in.

A Single Man, not surprisingly, is the work of a director obsessed with how things look.  Working with photographer Eduard Grau and production designer Dan Bishop, Ford creates striking visual contrasts: the bleached-out browns and tans of George's daily life clash with George's dreams and memories, which alternate between pristine black-and-white and vivid, shimmering colors.  Ford's visual scheme goes beyond esthetics; it underlines, if sometimes a bit too obviously, George's ragged, grieving emotional state.

Ford chose fine actors for his first film, and he gets fine performances from them.  In the end, however, the film belongs to Firth.  Throughout a career of nearly three decades, singleman3crFirth has gained a reputation for consistent excellence playing second leads or enigmatic objects of young women's desire.  (He is probably the most celebrated Mr. Darcy ever, and was Bridget Jones' Darcy as well as Elizabeth Bennet's.)  A Single Man is a rare opportunity for Firth to give a virtuoso star performance, and he is more than up to the challenge. 

Looking remarkably like Isherwood in some of his close-ups, Firth conveys a deep intelligence that goes far beyond what we're used to seeing in the screen portrayal of intellectuals.  His pain pulsates from the screen, all the more aching for his light, half-hearted banter with the neighbors and colleagues whose very presence mocks his pain.

A Single Man is an admirable first feature, deftly combining poignant lyricism with welcome flashes of wit.  The story takes a heartening twist toward the end, mirroring Isherwood's own happiness late in life with the much younger artist Don Bachardy. Unfortunately, the last two minutes succumb to a morbid sentimentality that was typical of the gay literature of that period.  In the early 1960s, apparently, even Christopher Isherwood didn't believe in a happy ending for a gay protagonist.

It's Complicated is the fluffiest of the movies reviewed here, but also in some ways the most satisfying.  Writer-director Nancy Meyers typically gets less respect than Rodney Dangerfield; one critic opined of her last movie, The Holiday, that any man who went to see it should be forced to pay with a crucial part of his anatomy rather than with money.  But while Meyers makes what are condescendingly known as "chick flicks," she usually manages to sneak in enough real emotion and good jokes to keep not only the chicks interested, but their dates as well. It's Complicated is no exception.

Jane Adler (Meryl Streep), mother of three grown children, owns a chic bakery-coffee bar in Santa Barbara.  For ten years she has been divorced from Jake (Alec Baldwin), a high-powered attorney who left her for a younger, hippie-style woman.  Staying in the same New York hotel to attend their son's college graduation, Jane and Jake encounter each other at the bar, and share a few drinks and memories.  Before they realize what's happening, they're sharing a bed as well.  Jane—as she tells her best friends at their weekly Kaffeeklatsch—has suddenly become "the other woman."


Jake, the more impulsive of the two, is gung-ho to pursue the affair, but Jane—though once again smitten with her ex-husband—is less sure.  For one thing, she's uneasy about how the children, even as grown up as they are, will react.  For another, she has made a tentative connection with Adam (Steve Martin, in a subdued performance), the shy, divorced architect who is building an addition to her house.  And, finally, the whole thing just doesn't seem right.  As for Jake, he has his own reasons for pursuing the affair: a few years ago his new wife left him for another man.  After a while she came back pregnant with the other man's child, and that child, now five years old, treats Jake like dirt. (See, Meyers told us it was complicated.)  Jane just wants to get on with her life, but Jake insists on doing things like giving her marijuana and surprising her naked in bed.

Meyers' detractors claim she writes about, and for, rich people exclusively.  There may be something to that; in It's Complicated, Jane is enthusiastic about finally building her dream kitchen, when the kitchen she has looks like Julia Child's Provencal fantasy.  Also, I could have done without the scene in which Jane hammers on her psychiatrist's door for an emergency session.  How very, very Hollywood.  (Or, if this were a Woody Allen movie, how very Upper East Side.)

On the other hand, I don't remember hearing of anyone (at least anyone who didn't write for The Daily Worker) complaining about the plethora of wealthy types in the great screwball comedies of the Thirties—My Man Godfrey, The Awful Truth, The Lady Eve, The Thin Man, It Happened One Night. It's Complicated may not be quite in that league, but it's in that tradition, and its screenplay and performances merit respect.   Furthermore, the genuine issues that arise toward the movie's end—about whether we have the right to follow our whims blindly, without considering the feelings of those who love us—give the story an unexpected and touching gravity.  In any case, Nancy Meyers specializes in movies about charming, pretty but slightly messed-up people doing charming, pretty, slightly messed-up things.  What's wrong with that?

Baldwin brings an appealing, boyish friskiness to the role of Jake, and the supporting actors are likable without exception.  (If you can imagine a golden retriever puppy with Bob Hope's comedy timing, you can approximate just how lovable John Krasinski is as Streep and Baldwin's future son-in-law.)  But It's Complicated has one overriding reason for being, and her name is Meryl Streep. 


Beating all show-business odds, Streep has remained a star for more than three decades, without even the briefest career slump.  The "Box-Office Poison" epithet may have stung Katharine Hepburn, but Streep has eluded it, and audiences everywhere can be grateful.  It's Complicated may not provide Streep with the most demanding role she's ever had, but it gives her ample opportunity to fill the screen with a warm, relaxed glow that makes Jane Adler an extremely amiable, amusing person to spend two hours with.  (Wait till you see her answer her front door, high on grass and chocolate cake.  You'll see what I mean.)  Streep's Jane may do goofy things, but they're goofy in a way we can connect with. Her essential wisdom and kindness are never in doubt, and her face radiates the satisfaction of a life well lived. This is the magic that a true star, and a true actress, can work on an audience, and it's nice to have Meryl Streep around to say "abracadabra" to us.


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©2010 Miles David Moore
©2010 Publication Scene4 Magazine


Scene4 Magazine — Miles David Moore
Miles David Moore is a Washington, D.C. reporter for Crain Communications Inc., the author of three books of poetry and
the Film Critic for Scene4.
For more of his commentary and articles, check the Archives
Read his Blog


Scene4 Magazine - Arts and Media

March 2010

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