Familiar Oscar territory
‘Crazy Heart’ and ‘Ghost Writer’ verge on greatness

by Willie Krischke

"Crazy Heart” starts out like so many independent artsy films about addiction, illness, fame, talent and aging, or any combination of those elements. Jeff Bridges plays a washed-up, alcoholic country music star who is now traveling solo in an old Suburban, playing bowling alleys, and begging his label to advance him some cash and release yet another “Greatest Hits” album. He is old, fat, ugly and out of luck. This is familiar Oscar bait territory. It’s the second cousin of “Playing Ugly” and the grand uncle of “Rain Man” Syndrome. We get to watch a respectable actor puke in his underwear and act utterly unrespectable. Maybe it’s the poetic justice we crave; we like watching our idols fall. It worked for Jeff Bridges, as he walked away with an Oscar for “Crazy Heart.” It also worked for Mickey Rourke last year, in “The Wrestler,” which was a movie very similar to “Crazy Heart,” only better.

Bridges is “Bad Blake,” a legendary country music star from the days of outlaw country who bears more than a little resemblance to Kris Kristofferson. But country music has changed and left Blake behind. Now the fans want slick and sexy instead of gruff and grouchy, and Blake’s one-time protege, played by Colin Farrell, is all the rage. “Crazy Heart” seems to bear the promise of some kind of showdown between Bad and Farrell – “outlaw country” vs. mainstream Nashville – but it never materializes. In fact, Farrell seems to be in the movie only so that there can be a happy ending. Whether or not Bad deserves this happy ending, whether it’s achieved by selling out, isn’t addressed.

Maggie Gyllenhaal plays a music writer in Santa Fe, which is a pretty lousy place to try and make a living writing about music. She harangues an interview with Bridges, and well, one thing leads to another. She has a 4-year-old son, and Bridges does honestly seem to adore him. Gyllenhaal can see this rough-around-the-edges, washed-up country singer filling in the Father Gap in her little boy, and maybe that’s why she keeps him around. But then tragedy almost strikes, and it’s Bridges’ fault, or at least seems to be – it’s easy to blame a guy who’s perpetually drunk when something goes wrong. And the whole thing falls apart. Hell hath no fury like a single mother scorned.

Bridges is great throughout, never overdoing it even if he is primarily doing a two-hour long Kristofferson impression. And Gyllenhaal, as usual, is excellent. Their chemistry seems odd – she’s at least 20 years younger than he is – but seems to work on its own terms. And yet all throughout, “Crazy Heart” feels light and trifling, a little too easy, a little too simple. The ending comes awfully quickly, and leaves some questions about artistry and integrity hanging. It feels, when the credits roll, like first-time director Scott Cooper seems more interested in making sure everyone – the audience included – is reasonably happy after two hours than in honestly following the threads of his story where they might lead. “Crazy Heart” is a pretty good movie, better than many, but it’s an awful lot like “The Wrestler,” which dug deeper, rang truer and hit harder. Call it “The Wrestler Lite.”

On another screen, “The Ghost Writer,” Roman Polanski’s newest (and rumored to be final) film, has the feel of a classic suspense thriller from the Hitchcock era. It is brisk and clean, while also ominous and atmospheric. It doesn’t waste time with character development, but instead introduces characters fully formed, and expects the audience to be able to keep up.

Observe the opening sequence. We see a ferry, and then a ferry unloading, until we notice one car that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. Cut to a quick scene of a body washing up onshore. You connect the dots. It’s not difficult, but it’s not spoon-fed, either. In some ways, it makes modern suspense thrillers feel very lazy and bloated.

Ewan McGregor is a two-bit writer who specialized in quick and dirty celebrity biographies – the kind of work editors thumb their noses at but publishers can’t get enough of. He is suddenly, surprisingly, put in charge of ghost writing the memoirs of a former British Prime Minister, played by Pierce Brosnan. He’s got 30 days to turn his burgeoning, boring manuscript into something that will sell. Meanwhile, Brosnan is holed up with his wife and staff in a fortress-like mansion on an island somewhere between New York and Washington. The place has a definite Hotel California feel about it, and Polanski does a lot with atmospherics in “The Ghost Writer.” Everything is shrouded in fog that occasionally breaks into furious rainstorms, and there’s never a sunny moment to be found. Brosnan’s staff, led by his wife (played with great relish by Olivia Williams), all seem to be under a spell. It’s like they know a secret, are dying to tell, but telling would mean dying. Of course, this is the exact truth.

Just as McGregor begins work on the memoir, political disaster strikes for Brosnan, and McGregor finds himself possibly complicit in the dealings of a man he hardly knows. On top of that, some things just don’t add up, and it starts to look like the writer McGregor replaced – the one on the ferry at the beginning – didn’t exactly jump. As he follows the clues, he uncovers a political conspiracy big enough to rock the foundations of the British government.

I didn’t like the ending of “The Ghost Writer.” The final twist feels obvious, amateur and sloppy after the cleverness and subtlety of all that’s gone before. But overall, Polanski’s latest is smart, spooky and entertaining; definitely worth seeing. •

You can read more of Willie Krischke’s reviews at www.gonnawatchit.com



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