Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart plays a man who's been on a 30-year bender, and looks it. As faded country singer Bad Blake, he has a heavy-paunched swagger, a grizzly beard and the mild-mannered vagueness of his beloved Dude from The Big Lebowski. But this character is no figure of fun: he's broke and boozed-up to the eyeballs, adrift through the Southwest playing small gigs in bowling alleys where they won't even comp him a beer (his reputation precedes him). He can still sing, though he sometimes has to disappear mid-set to throw up in a back alley. The pick-up bands Bad plays with know he's a "legend", and accordingly cut him some slack, but all he's concerned about is the bottom line: "You sure they ain't payin' you more than they're payin' me?"
A veteran of four marriages, Bad still has an eye for the ladies, too, and he strikes lucky when a Sante Fe journalist named Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal) stops by his motel to interview him. Despite chainsmoking, drinking and chowing down a steak – all at once – he somehow charms her into a date, and thence into bed. Jean has a four-year-old son with whom Bad immediately bonds, and for a while this unlikely trio form an impromptu family: after all, his chronic alcoholism is nothing a miracle couldn't cure.
The first-time writer-director Scott Cooper sets a gentle, unhurried pace as he unfolds the story – it's based on a novel by Thomas Cobb – and the rueful tenderness that Bridges invests in the old soak as he squares up to new responsibility can't help but move. Crazy Heart has a problem, though, insofar as that story (unlike Bad himself) severely lacks juice. Cooper sets up a couple of interesting plotlines, the first around Bad's awkward relationship with former protégé Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), now a big country star who seems embarrassed by what happened between them. But what did happen? The film dangles the mystery before us, and then abandons it. Later, we watch Bad plucking up the courage to telephone the son he hasn't seen in 24 years, but this also comes to a dead end. We never find out why he ran out on his family, and the son remains a disembodied voice on the line.
It's hard to dislike, all the same, not least because of those dusty old country songs that Bad reels through. Bridges, ringing the changes from the last musician he played in The Fabulous Baker Boys, can certainly hold a tune – he's a less growly Kris Kristofferson – and his stage duet with Colin Farrell (who also has a decent voice) on "Fallin' and Flyin'" could even be called a highlight. The weary grace of Bad's songwriting sounds like something drawn from a hard place – "Life, unfortunately," he admits – and one only wishes that Crazy Heart had been prepared to back it up with some drama.