Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges) has seen better days. He’s packing some meat around the middle, and the cowboy hat and coffee-tinted Waylon Jennings shades that once signified outlaw cool now hide the reality of too many whiskeys before noon. Centered around this has-been country crooner, Crazy Heart channels a notable genre of American films about that tragic, potent place where troubled musicians long for better days, or a shot at the enchanted spotlight of fame. From Georgia to Tender Mercies, these films unfold with a quiet artistry that captures the sadness of dreams dying hard.

Jeff Bridges recalls the laconic, comfortable-in-his-own-skin vibe of Kris Kristofferson as the washed-up country singer Bad Blake who is now reduced to playing bowling alleys where he suffers the additional indignity of being denied a bar tab. “I’m 57 years old. I’m broke,” Bad laments. This is Bad in a nutshell: coasting on the fumes of a career forever glimpsed in the rear view. Now, Bad suffers the professional shame of opening for bigger acts like Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), the younger, studlier country star who turns Bad’s heartfelt lyrics into billboard hits. Crazy Heart is All About Eve for the Nashville set, as a younger, narrow-waisted replacement eases Bad out of the limelight.

But few have made washing up on life’s shoals as inherently interesting or made it look as poetic as Jeff Bridges in this career-defining role. Sprawled out shirtless on the couch, picking at his guitar or drinking “barley pops” with his fishing buddy Wayne (Robert Duvall), Bad has a devious personal integrity, an undeniable charm that plays upon the innate American love of a laconic rebel and bad boy. Even sick from booze, Bad is a consummate professional who remembers his lyrics, banters with the audience, and honors song requests, even while stepping outside mid-act to hurl.

Bad is pulled out of his contended stupor — and away from an eternity of motel room tête-à-têtes with a coven of bar flies — courtesy of a Santa Fe newspaper reporter Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Unlike Bad, Jean has no taste for the bottle and a devotion to her child that Bad lacks toward his. An interview in Bad’s motel room snowballs into another, and then a relationship, and the slow insinuation of Bad into Jean and her young son Buddy’s life. Bad has a grown son of his own he hasn’t seen in decades, and director Scott Cooper (working from Thomas Cobb’s novel) shoots the interactions between the bow-legged, gruffly elegant Bad and Buddy with a lump in his throat as Bad gets another chance at playing daddy.

Crazy Heart marks what could be the dawning of the age of the sexually charismatic geriatric man. Call it gericool, with Bridges joining Alec Baldwin in It’s Complicated and Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler. All three men vouch for the appealing sediments of experience, personal history, and tragedy.

If there’s any flaw to this satisfying, lyrical film, it’s how it cheats all of the middle-aged groupies who bed down with Bad after each performance. Unlike The Wrestler‘s tender, thoughtful, and egalitarian treatment of the comparable indignity for women, of aging out of their dreams, Crazy Heart has a streak of cruelty where its secondary female characters are concerned.

But it’s hard to fault a movie with such integrity and grace. One of the most affecting dimensions to Crazy Heart is how it so resolutely refuses to tie up its story with a neat bow. No one secures fame, relationships peter out, and family happiness is not necessarily restored. Crazy Heart has the mellow, believable gait of real life, and sometimes the truth is better than any reassuring fiction.

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