Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Crazy Heart, The Verdict, and The Wrestler: Fall and Redemption in American Film

About 15 minutes into the new Jeff Bridges movie "Crazy Heart," I started thinking about Waylon Jennings. I don't know if the filmmakers had him in mind, but they did play one of his songs in the movie. And I think Jeff Bridges looked a lot like Waylon Jennings in some of the performance scenes.

Are You Sure Hank Did It This Way? (Written and performed by Waylon Jennings).

I loved Waylon Jennings, and I loved the movie "Crazy Heart."

Jeff Bridges is a very handsome man. Elegant, graceful, cool, talented, creative. And very handsome. So when he makes himself look repulsive for a film role, you know that is some good acting. And he does look repulsive in the early part of the movie. By the end, he's just his old handsome self.

I've heard people compare "Crazy Heart" to another terrific movie, "Tender Mercies," starring Robert Duvall, who is also in "Crazy Heart," and I believe is also one of the producers of "Crazy Heart." Robert Duvall is unquestionably one of America's greatest living actors. He and Jeff Bridges share something in common, in terms of their film roles. Both have taken smaller roles in smaller films, avoided being typecast. It seems like both of them are more interesting in getting a challenging role than they are in just being famous, or making lots of money. I wonder if that is because they don't think they have anything to prove to anybody, or if it's the opposite, the act of choosing the smaller film is their own way of proving their devotion to the craft. Maybe these choices are the reason Jeff Bridges has never gotten an Oscar. I think he will this year, and he deserves one.

"Crazy Heart" made me think of two other films: "The Wrestler" with Mickey Rourke, a recent movie that received much praise from some; and "The Verdict," an older movie with Paul Newman, one of my favorite actors and one of my favorite films.

When I saw "The Wrestler," I was disappointed. I disliked the film on some level. And I disliked Mickey Rourke who seemed to be living the exact life portrayed in the movie.

All three of the movies seem to be very "American." All three stories portray what we assume is a uniquely American life.

In "The Verdict," Paul Newman has it all: successful lawyer in a big law firm making an excellent salary, with social connections, prestige, big house, wife, friends. Then he is set up, wrongly accused of something, because he refuses to cover up somebody else's misconduct. Because of his refusal, he is destroyed. Loses the job, the income, the house, the wife, his prospects, and is socially disgraced. He turns to alcohol to get through his life.

In "The Wrestler," Mickey Rourke plays a professional wrestler who has a silly name, wears silly costumes, injects himself with steroids to build false muscles, stages phony matches, and is adored by the "fans" of these events. He also is a drunk, with mostly failed relationships at all levels.

In "Crazy Heart," Jeff Bridges plays a country western singer and songwriter whose best days are long passed. He's 57 years old, chain-smokes, is a drunk, and barely earns a living by criss-crossing the southwest and playing gigs in places like bowling alleys, picking up women in each town he plays then sneaking out the next morning. He is also a drunk.

In all three movies, the central question is whether people who have sunk so low can ever get a do-over. Is it possible to un-do the past? Can people, through sincere regret or proper apologies, through a commitment to change or spiritual awakening, actually go back and un-do the harm they caused to others, and to themselves, through their self-absorbed, irresponsible, drunken behavior?

All three movies conclude that do-overs are not allowed in life. You cannot un-do the past. If you get sober and sincerely decide to change your life, you will not return to being a 30-year-old hot stud with lots of young babes hanging around desiring you, or opportunity beating down your door.

But that is where the movies differ. In "The Verdict," Paul Newman gets sober at the end, and he does the right thing for some clients. And it pays off for him, financially -- he will get a percentage of the client's award in a lawsuit, and the movie lets you know that it will be a big judgment. But the most important thing he gets at the end is his dignity.

There is a wonderful scene in "The Verdict" when Paul Newman, the drunk, is so terrified of having to face a woman that he is physically cowering behind a door, I believe a bathroom door, unable to breathe, unable to stand, and just begging her to leave him alone. It is such a powerful moment in the film, showing how incapable he is of living. At the end, he is no longer cowering. He may be afraid of what lies ahead, but he has regained his dignity, and is ready to move forward.

In "Crazy Heart," there is a similar theme. Jeff Bridges cleans up in the end. That does not mean that he goes back to when he was 30 and a young stud. It does mean that he regains his dignity. "Crazy Heart" also had a terrific bathroom scene. Jeff Bridges wakes up sick to his stomach from all the alcohol he had been drinking, runs into the bathroom and vomits, falls to the floor sobbing, unable to even catch his breath. You know from that scene that he has almost reached the end, and he will either change or die.

In the end he gets sober, with the help of his friend Robert Duvall. But he does not get the young girl (a wonderful performance by Maggie Gyllenthal), he does not get everything he wants in life. But he is able to function, to be productive, and to live his life with dignity. He also accepts with grace this new phase of his life -- no longer the hottest young thing in the country-western world, but an aging, very talented singer and songwriter.

"The Wrestler" has a different ending, and ultimately is a much weaker film. In "The Wrestler," as in the other two films, the main character, Mickey Rourke, faces a crisis in his life and has a moment of clarity. He sees that he is older now, no longer the hot young wrestler, and that his days of injecting steroids and performing in these matches may be over. He also acknowledges that he has destroyed every relationship in his life, including the one with his child who he abandoned. He is repentent, and wants to un-do the wrong, get a do-over. But he does not follow through. In fact, when he realizes that he does not get a do-over, he abandons any interest in trying to make things right.

After re-establishing a relationship with his daughter, the Mickey Rourke character stands her up and once again shows her that he comes first, and she is no real importance to him. He meets a young woman and begins a relationship, decides this time will be different, but it isn't, because he is not different.

In the end of the movie, Mickey Rourke's character has decided that he will go out -- end his life -- in the ring, in a silly costume with the ignorant fans cheering, self-absorbed and delusional about his own importance, even though that may lead to his death. In the end he chooses this silly fantasy he had created for himself, clouded with alcohol, built upon betrayal of others, a childishly romantic view of death, and a complete lack of awareness about the value of just living.

That is why "The Wrestler" ultimately is a disappointing film. It is so juvenile. So likely to appeal to 15 year olds who think that dying is romantic or glamorous. The other two films, "The Verdict" and "Crazy Heart," both are premised on a more mature awareness that life is valuable, that being older does not mean being less, that dignity matters, that nuance in film as well as in life is a rare and important quality.

I heard one of the Jonas Brothers the other day said that Bob Dylan can't sing. In case you missed it, the Jonas Brothers are three very young teen boys that Disney created, much like the Little Mermaid, and is selling to tweens around the country. Clean-cut young white boys who all publicly swear they will remain virgins until marriage, wearing clean-cut suburban mall clothing, with clean-cut haircuts, singing clean lyrics, and being in all ways a manufactured pre-fab embarrassment. One of them had the nerve to say that Bob Dylan can't sing. It made me sad to realize how ignorant our young people are, how brain-washed they have been by the corporate media and marketing.

That's the difference in these movies. "The Wrestler" is intended to appeal to white American male teen-agers with a corny, almost formulaic ending that trivializes everything in life other than being cool and tough. Arnold Schwarzenegger could have played the role. No acting required.

"The Verdict" and "Crazy Heart," on the other hand, are a lot like Bob Dylan and everything he has ever done. Truly honest and sometimes painful glimpses of some American men who have failed, men who may be off-key for part of their lives, but who are tough in the ways that matter: tough enough to get honest, tough enough to continue living despite age, infirmity or lack of wealth.

Watch this clip of Waylon Jennings singing a great song, "Honkey Tonk Heroes," and see if you think the movie "Crazy Heart" had him in mind:


  1. With the destruction of the extended family, the isolation of suburban living, the individual is encouraged to "live" a great part of their lives in front of a poisonous teevee set.
    The self becomes the sole reference point for those not having any healthy emotional support, those having never been loved, those not capable of seeing the great diversity which exists in reality.
    Children are exploited to the point that they are walking advertisements for corporations, with conspicuous consumption being the measure of worth, outwardly and inwardly.
    One can never have enough of something which does not truly fulfill, and if consumption and self are all that the person has, they may remain upon this mad treadmill to the end of their days.
    If memory serves, an "idiot" is one who is completely self absorbed.
    We seem to have produced a bumper crop of idiocy in this society.
    I never liked Rourke in anything I saw him in.
    I agree that "The Verdict" is a great movie, I watch it every year or so, it reminds me that there are true values.
    I look forward to the Bridges movie, thanks.
    Don Smith

  2. You're in for a treat, Don. I hope you like the movie. It's beautifully filmed, great performances, and a story well-told about human despair and human dignity.