Monday, January 25, 2010

R.I.P. Jean Simmons; "Crazy Heart" is fairly tame; Heath Ledger's swan song

The Siren has put up a truly lovely tribute to a truly lovely actress: Jean Simmons, who isn't quite as famous now as she was in her heyday, but not for lack of beauty or talent. I've really nothing to add to it except that my father had a lifelong crush on her, and while I've only seen her in a couple of movies, I sure don't blame him.

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CRAZY HEART

directed by Scott Cooper
starring Jeff Bridges, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Robert Duvall

“Crazy Heart” is a well-made, well-acted, and thoroughly well-intentioned film. It’s also a bit of a snooze.

That most likely won’t stop it from snagging Jeff Bridges his long-overdue Oscar, nor should it. The veteran actor gives a fine, deeply etched performance that, characteristically, manages to be affecting without being showy and provides not just the heart but the backbone of a film that might otherwise feel rather limp. As it is, even his talents can’t prevent a certain flatness from setting in, as the story hits a well-worn, if comfortable, groove.

Bridges, looking like Kris Kristofferson if Kristofferson had gone to seed, plays a fictional country singer, “Bad” Blake, who’s descended from near-legendary status to semi-obscurity. His solo gigs reduced to dive bars and bowling alleys, his album royalties slowed to a trickle, he hasn’t written a new song in years, has four failed marriages and a grown-up son he hasn’t seen or talked to in decades, and spends most of his days in a whiskey-induced haze. Then he meets and falls for a woman, Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal), and starts thinking, to paraphrase his own words, about how bad she makes his life look—and whether he can clean it up a little.

“Crazy Heart” has drawn a lot of comparisons with last year’s “The Wrestler,” and the parallels are obvious: a washed-up star with an alliterative stage name, his past littered with poor choices and estranged family members, still making a living out of the dregs of his former fame, looks for a chance at a comeback. There’s also an obvious difference between the two, which I won’t spoil either movie by spelling out. But a less obvious, though equally key, difference is that unlike Randy “the Ram” Robinson, Bad Blake isn’t really hung up on his glory days, or at least isn’t wondering where they went. One senses he knows perfectly well where they went, and knows that he has only himself—or perhaps, more accurately, his alcoholism—to blame. Maybe that’s why “Crazy Heart,” even at its lowest moments, lacks the wrenching pathos of “The Wrestler,” and why Bad’s slide towards irrelevance always seems reversible in a way that Randy’s never was. (That’s not, by the way, to underestimate the destructive power of alcoholism, though one could fairly argue the writers of “Crazy Heart” do underestimate it.)

I can see why people like “Crazy Heart.” It’s a spare, modest film that feels like a labor of love, as indeed it was for director-writer Scott Cooper - elevated not just by Bridges’ bona fide musical chops but his ability to dig deep into his character while revealing its essence sparingly, gradually, in glimmers and shards. Even though the broad outlines of the plot are predictable, the smaller strokes are less so. The pacing of Bad’s attempt at rehabilitation is more delayed and more jagged than it would be in a glossier Hollywood version of the same story, though it ultimately comes to a resolution that feels too neat and swift after what came before. The coda, however, is nicely understated, even if it can’t resist, at the last, an unnecessary dollop of sugary sentiment.

But the film’s main weakness, I think, is also one of its most central features: its focus on the romance between Bad and Jean. The problem isn’t so much that Jean is young enough to be Bad’s daughter as that the relationship itself isn’t particularly interesting. Jean’s a journalist and a single mother, which one might expect would make her a multidimensional person; but in fact, we see only two facets of her—the nurturing mother and the nurturing lover/muse—and the inevitable conflict that arises between those two roles. Despite Gyllenhaal’s best efforts, her character remains something of a cipher, and her whole relationship with Bad more of a necessary catalyst for his own development than an intrinsically engaging story. Which might be ok if so much of the movie wasn’t devoted to showing that story unfold.

Personally, I was much more interested in the relationship between Bad and his former protégé, country superstar Tommy Sweet (an uncredited, and surprisingly good, Colin Farrell), whose own career skyrocketed at the same time that Bad’s faded. Bad agrees, with ill grace, to open for Tommy, and some of the best scenes in the movie involve the complicated, prickly interactions between the fallen mentor and the student who eclipsed him. Bad may regard Tommy as the last man on earth he should be asking for a favor, while Tommy’s mainly looking out for his own interest, yet underneath the tension there’s a ghost of an old camaraderie and a vein of genuine, mutual respect for each other’s talents that comes out in both their conversations and their musical collaborations. I couldn’t help wishing, more than once, that Cooper had made a movie about the history of Bad and Tommy, rather than of Bad and Jean. But I guess that story wouldn’t feel as much like a classic country song.

GRADE: B


Also saw:

THE IMAGINARUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS

directed by Terry Gilliam
starring Heath Ledger, Christopher Plummer, Tom Waits, Verne Troyer, Lily Cole, Andrew Garfield, with appearances by Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell

Yep, this is the one—Heath Ledger’s last film, which he hadn’t finished shooting at the time of his death. Undeterred, director Terry Gilliam went ahead and finished it without him, hiring no fewer than three major stars—Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell—to play Ledger’s character in the scenes that were left.

Inspired or misconceived? Neither, actually. No doubt “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” would have been best served if Ledger had been able to play himself all the way through. Still, Gilliam’s idea isn’t as crazy as it sounds, given that the movie’s a fantasy and the scenes in question involve incursions into a kind of dreamworld, in which a Heath turning into a Johnny, Jude, or Colin is no stranger than some of the other goings-on.

But in any event we get Heath for most of the movie, playing Tony, a silver-tongued trickster who by chance falls in with a rickety traveling show that looks like it was displaced from a 19th century carnival: there’s a wry dwarf (Verne Troyer), a beautiful young girl (model Lily Cole), the Puck-ish youth in love with her (Andrew Garfield), and the presiding seer, Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer), who’s also the girl’s father. It’s Parnassus’ special mental powers that create the show’s principal and only attraction, the Imaginarium—the aforementioned dreamworld, a projection of each entrant’s desires, fantasies, and fixations. In addition to this rare talent, Parnassus also boasts unusual longevity and a centuries-old relationship with the devil (Tom Waits) that’s become a kind of eternal game of oneupmanship. At stake in the latest round of their matchup is Parnassus’ daughter, who belongs to whichever of them is first to win five souls. Tony soon becomes entangled in the game, and complicates it with his own self-interested machinations.

“Doctor Parnassus” is a head trip—more “Baron Munchausen” than “12 Monkeys”—that makes less sense the more you think about it. My advice: don’t try too hard to make sense of it or read some complicated allegory into it. Rather, just enjoy the trip to Gilliam-land, with its visual delights, funhouse whimsy, and moments of loopy humor that call to mind the old Monty Python days—and, of course, Ledger’s final performance. He’s in charming rogue mode here, which, like his highly underrated turn in “Casanova,” is always a pleasure to watch. As for his understudies, they gamely attempt to pick up where he left off, though their effectiveness seems to diminish from one stand-in to the next. (Or maybe I’m just unfairly prejudiced against Colin Farrell, who to be fair, is usually a better actor than I like to admit.) Still, perhaps the most positive sign for “Parnassus” is that it doesn’t end up being overshadowed by the presence of Heath Ledger: if anything, it’s most focused on the Plummer-Waits dynamic, with Ledger playing an almost incidental, though very engaging, member of a cheerfully chaotic ensemble. Somehow I suspect that that would have been exactly how Ledger would have wanted this, his last role, to be remembered.

GRADE: B

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