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Bridges stakes his Oscar claim in a hoary old tale

Timothy Barber
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Film
CRAZY HEART
WERE it not for Jeff Bridges’ dazzling central performance, Crazy Heart would be a hard sell, particularly in this country. The story of a washed-up, hard-living country music star finding redemption in the arms of a pretty young gal has all the formulaic, tug-the-heartstrings predictability of a made-for-TV movie. So even with all the Oscar buzz surrounding Bridges’ performance, it’s something of a surprise that the film is as absorbing and touching as it is.

Much of the credit has to go to debut writer/director Scott Cooper as well, for creating a film that gives time and space to its characters, finding nuance and tenderness in its deeply hackneyed storyline. Bridges plays “Bad” Blake, once top of the country music charts, now a grizzled alcoholic gigging his way through the bars and bowling alleys of the US southwest on his own. He’s on a steady downward spiral, sleeping in seedy motels, ducking out of gigs to vomit in alleyways, and watching from the depths as a former protégé, Colin Farrell’s Tommy Sweet, rakes in the millions.

Maggie Gyllenhal is the sassy journalist and single mom who reawakens the spirit of this defeated, whisky-sodden old washout. Robert Duvall pops up as a Houston bartender and Bad’s one good friend, and Farrell is on good supporting form as the superstar keen to acknowledge his mentor. But it’s Bridges’ all-encompassing performance that makes this film sing, albeit in a dusty, strumming-along-in-the-desert kind of a way. Expect him to have a statuette in his hand come Oscar day.

THE LOVELY BONES
Cert: 12A
ALICE Sebold’s book, about a murdered girl who watches from the afterlife as her family, friends and undiscovered killer deal with the fall-out of her death, was a massive success upon its publication in 2002. The same cannot be said of its film adaptation. The director, Peter Jackson – he of Lord of the Rings fame – reportedly threw $100m at the production, but has come up with a saccharine, confused mess of a film.

Saoirse Ronan is Susie Salmon, the pretty Pennsylvania schoogirl who, wandering home one night, is tempted into an underground lair by her neighbour Mr Harvey (Stanley Tucci), who murders her (this is not shown). As Susie watches from a realm between heaven and earth, her parents (Mark Wahlberg and Rachel Weisz) learn of her death and their marriage eventually breaks down. Her younger sister begins to grow up and Mr Harvey carries on his loner life – but is he planning another murder?

For a film about something as traumatic as child murder, and from source material as complex as Sebold’s book, it’s extraordinary that Jackson fails to create anything that’s emotionally resonant or involving. Instead he attempts to dazzle us with wondrous CGI images of Susie’s rainbow-coloured, heavenly fantasy-land, unhappily recalling the dreadful Robin Williams afterlife drama, What Dreams May Come.

The one bright spark in the film is Ronan – the young actress, who was Oscar-nominated for her debut in Atonement, continues to prove that she’s a major talent. Wahlberg and Weisz are given little to do, while Susan Sarandon makes a disastrously misjudged appearance – intended, incredibly, as comic relief – as Weisz’s whisky-addled mother.

Theatre
SERENADING LOUIE
Donmar Warehouse
SOMETIMES a play is rarely performed because it’s a forgotten masterpiece, sometimes because it’s technically difficult to stage, and sometimes because it’s an excruciatingly dull slice of whiny miserablism about the American middle classes that deserves its place in obscurity. No prizes for guessing which this is. Plucked from the shadows by the Donmar Warehouse, and performed with zest by a talented cast, Lanford Wilson’s 1974 look at the emotional and spiritual malaise of those who seem to have it all never justifies its resurrection.

The play contrasts two failing marriages. Alex is a politically ambitious lawyer unable to hold a conversation with his wife Gaby; his best friend Carl is a former high school sports star and businessman trying not to care that his wife, Mary, is having an affair. In a drab, seventies-style living room that represents both their homes, they moan, argue, moan some more, before things finally spiral from inertia into overwrought melodrama.

The cast, led by Jason Butler Harner as self-satisfied Alex and Geraldine Somerville as sly, assertive Mary, do all they can to breath fire into the piece, but the powder remains resolutely dry. The two hour running time felt much longer.