“Crazy Heart” and “The Wrestler”- A Comparison

February 1, 2010

“Crazy Heart,” like “The Road,” was shaping up to be an elusive film—one receiving massive critical attention yet not playing at a single of the dozen-plus theatres in my city. “The Road” finally showed up for a week at a theater here in town and then moved to the discount theater, where I managed to catch it. “Crazy Heart” was finally listed at a local theatre—but for one showing, on a Tuesday night, while I was at work. Luckily, it came back with full rotation the following weekend. I caught it on Sunday afternoon at 1:30 in the afternoon. It was only showing at one theatre, so even at 15 minutes before show time it was on its way to selling out (which it did, three customers behind me in line). Entering the theater I was pointed to a seat between two large groups and I settled in to see the picture, wondering yet again why a movie with this much obvious interest was only showing in one theatre while “The Squeakquel” was everywhere (I guess because that turd was still dropping enough to remain in the top 5 in box office sells).

While watching “Crazy Heart” I couldn’t help but compare it to last year’s “The Wrestler.” Both films are massively entertaining, character-driven pieces about struggling, washed up, middle-aged men who are their own worst enemies as they struggle to piece it all back together and get a glimpse of redemption. Both films showcase terrific actors making “come-back” performances, i.e. roles in movies that actually catch the attention of the Academy and the like. Jeff Bridges knocks it fully out of the park as “Bad Blake,” an aging country music star who is reduced to touring the Midwest playing bowling alleys; Mickey Rourke delivered an equally devastating performance as “Randy the Ram,” an aging pro-wrestler resorted to working the deli counter at a supermarket to pay the bills and wrestling anywhere that will take him on the weekends. Blake’s a chain-smoking alcoholic and at one point an automobile accident lands him in the hospital where a doctor chides him on his general lack of health, telling him that his smoking and drinking will kill him if he doesn’t stop. Randy is so pumped up on steroids and medication with a body so ravaged that a heart attack ensues and a doctor tells him he will die if he doesn’t stop. Both men have been absent in the lives of their own children and realize only too late how badly they want to know them. Both films feature great performances by women as potential love interests – Maggie Gyllenhaal as “Jean,” a small town newspaper writer who begins to fall for Blake, Marisa Tomei as “Cassidy,” a stripper tempted to throw her don’t-date-the-customer rule out of the window for Randy. The women in both films are drawn to these men against their best instincts, both women offer the protagonist the redemption they seek, and both men prove they can’t help standing in the way of their own happiness.

It’s easy to point out that the story behind these films isn’t a brand new and innovative one—the comparisons between them show that they share an awfully lot with one another, even. The writing for both films is excellent though; it’s the attention to detail, the full immersion in the lives of these characters. Bad Blake’s history and place in life is real, authentic and captivating, at turns humorous and sad. The behind-the-scenes events in “The Wrestler”—from Randy chopping and hiding bits of a razor in his head band to use in cutting himself when down on the mat to make the match bloody, to the fellow wrestler selling him his steroids or the opponents choreographing their fight before taking the ring— these details make the script visceral. The performances each player brings to the role they are given in both of these films are what make great movies.  “Crazy Heart” gives us top-notch acting by Jeff Bridges, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Robert Duvall and everyone else involved; “The Wrestler” showcased Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachael Wood and all others doing the same.

On the road to the Oscars and in the light of the Golden Globes disappointments, it’s worth pointing out the obvious—these are the type of films that deserve awards. These are the type of films that show the power film possesses. Actors giving performances that are superb; directing that gives us scope, feel, texture and beauty; soundtracks that coalesce into the work as a whole to give it that thematic kick; stories that resonate and stick with you. This isn’t to say that spectacle has no room for lasting value and that it’s incompatible with great and lasting films – “The Dark Knight” proved that all of these factors could come together with a healthy dose of special effects, technical wizardry and edge-of-the-seat action. “The Lord of the Rings,” the original three “Star Wars” films, and this year’s “Star Trek” remake proved that fantasy and science-fiction films, even those replete with costumes and make up can still leave room for great performances, intelligent stories, and exciting directorial vision. Whereas a film like “Avatar,” which I don’t doubt is amazing to look at, exciting and fun, doesn’t strike me as deserving of “Picture of the Year”—I’ve never been less interested in seeing an acclaimed film in my life, even though I’m a sci-fi/fantasy fan and an acclaimed-film junky, even though my favorite critics are urging everyone to give it a view (and I think everyone else has). Even the most glowing reviews of “Avatar” don’t mention “terrific performance by blue man number one,” most comment that the story isn’t that important (or original) for the enjoyment of the film, and the main directing Cameron seems to have done is dump more money than God into a project, affording him his pick of technical wizards to craft a brain-numbing experience that hits the pleasure centers of the brain like methamphetamine. But as you like it, I suppose.

One last note—for all of you bemoaning the Globe winners, in case the little reported winners of SGA and PGA didn’t reach you, “Inglorious Basterds” and “The Hurt Locker” cleaned up, shutting out “Avatar.”

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