Expand the story in your average old-fashioned country song to feature-film length and it would look a lot like Crazy Heart, writer-director Scott Cooper’s debut about drinkin’, lovin’, and livin’ too hard. The bad boy in this tale is actually named Bad. And when we meet him, he’s a grizzled, washed-up singer in the Kris Kristofferson/Merle Haggard vein, barely making enough money to avoid sobriety as he drives his truck around what might be called the Southwest Bowling Alley Circuit.
Adapted from a Thomas Cobb novel, Crazy Heart is a thin and fairly predictable slice-of-life. Yes, Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges) stumbles through his days and screws up gigs, most of them sparsely attended by barflies who can’t clap to a beat. Yes, he gets nagged by his manager (James Keane) and is bitter about the mainstream success of a kid he mentored, Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell). Bad, who’s been married four times and has an estranged son, falls for a journalist, Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who has a young boy of her own. He even crashes his truck. The only thing missing is a one-eyed dog.
Yet it all goes down as smoothly and enjoyably as a fine whiskey. Bridges is generating Oscar talk, and rightly so. His performance never for a second feels like one: This character is thoroughly lived-in, from Bridges’ pro-level singing and stage presence to the wry, too-late-now attitude he brings to the character’s shitty life. Bad gets away with being an ass because of his former glory, but even when Gyllenhaal’s apparent Dorothy Hamill–haired madonna enters the picture, there’s not a total about-face. He may have found a new spark that puts him on his best behavior, but at his best he still drinks—and when Jean stops looking the other way, he mutters: “I don’t want to hear it” before driving off. And, surprisingly, the actors’ 28-year age difference doesn’t result in a queasy romance. Bad’s music, though out of style, keeps a nugget of him young, while Jean’s former bad decisions and life as a single mom lends her a weariness beyond her years, helping their attraction feel natural.
The best part of Crazy Heart by far, though, is its soundtrack. Music producer T Bone Burnett also wrote several of the songs in Bad and Tommy’s repertoire, each of them chart-worthy. And Cooper wisely doesn’t relegate the music to quick glimpses of Bad’s gigs, instead letting Bridges and Farrell entertain audiences in near-real time, allowing the melancholy singles (and the actors’ impressive turns as country stars) to transport as thoroughly as a live performance.
The film’s most prominant shortcoming is its facile third act, with an ending that’s neither completely rosy nor irrevocably tragic—yet still too neat. But sit through the credits and the entirety of one of the soundtrack’s strongest offerings and you’ll forgive the missteps, just as Bad’s fans are able to separate the exhilarating entertainer from the flawed man.
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus Directed by Terry Gilliam
Farrell, sporting the same greasy ponytail and mustache, looks as though he walked directly from the Crazy Heart set to film The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. Farrell was a last-minute addition to the project, after Heath Ledger’s death prompted director Terry Gilliam to finish the film with Farrell, Johnny Depp, and Jude Law as rotating stand-ins for his deceased star. The shared-character trope has been jarring at worst (Palindromes) and odd at best (I’m Not There, the Bob Dylan biopic in which Ledger also played a fragmented role). Here, though, the transitions not only work but make sense in the context of Gilliam’s dense story about a magic man, his traveling road show, and a looking glass that transforms anyone who walks through it.
The film as a whole isn’t quite as successful, a visual and narrative whirlwind that’s too scattershot to engage and is a disappointing finale to Ledger’s career. It’s difficult to grasp the gist of the plot among all the literal smoke and mirrors: In present-day London, an olde-tyme vaudeville act pops up featuring with Valentina, a lovely, Victorian-clad Kewpie doll (Lily Cole), Percy, a “little person” (Verne Troyer), and Anton, a face-painted barker (Andrew Garfield). “Let Dr. Parnassus open your imagination; let him transport you!” Anton cries, as Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) meditates onstage, in robes and a white beard, looking old as time itself. In truth, he nearly is: Parnassus had long ago made a deal with the devil (Tom Waits), granted youth and immortality in exchange for handing over any of his future offspring on his or her 16th birthday.
How exactly Parnassus is able to “open your imagination” is a mystery to both passers-by and viewers, but it involves a mirror that leads those who dare enter it into a fantasical world in which both bliss and damnation can be found. More important, though, is the Faustian deal: Valentina is nearly 16 and unaware of her fate. But Satan, here called Mr. Nick, offers Parnassus a chance to keep his daughter with another wager, this one involving which of them can, er, suck five souls into the netherworld first. Or something. Ledger’s character, Tony, enters the picture when Valentina and Anton find him in a noose over a bridge. (Yeah, the sight—the actor’s first scene—isn’t pleasant.) Tony has amnesia but quickly proves himself adept at charming people into seeing the show and, ideally, entering the mirror. There are hints that his past isn’t an honorable one, involving a children’s charity that’s really a front for money-laundering.
Got that? It hardly matters. Gilliam is all about the fantasy, and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is often a ravishing spectacle full of surreal scenes: free-standing ladders that stretch to the sky, verdant fields and creeks that look straight out of a Monet, and, in a particularly Monty Python-esque scene, a giant head that unleashes a chorus line of singing and dancing bobbies, some of them in drag. Backgrounds fracture like glass and peaceful images wither to gray menace as Mr. Nick takes over this otherworld. The film is a perfect candidate for 3-D, but kudos to Gilliam for not trying to milk an overly trendy cash cow.
But it’s all sound and fury. You’ll never be bored by the film, yet there are too many WTF? moments and messy plot turns to recommend it. Ledger’s character is too murky for his performance to be remarkable. (Though Depp, in his short amount of screen time, adds some welcome whimsy.) Gilliam’s most impressive achievement is delivering a movie that doesn’t seem like it had to be reimagined and patched together mid-production. But when it ends with not a director’s credit but “A Film From Heath Ledger and Friends,” a melancholic sentimentality is all you’ll likely take away from it.