It used to be that a sure way for an actor to garner an Oscar nomination or an award was for him/her to play a mentally challenged character. This unwritten rule developed into a running joke in Hollywood and studios and actors had to find a different way to ensure easy accolades. With 2008’s The Wrestler and last year’s Crazy Heart, they seem to have found a way. Now I don’t mean to belittle Jeff Bridges’ wonderful performance by any means, but I couldn’t help but compare his character to Mickey Rourke’s in The Wrestler. Both play grizzled, past-their-prime lonely men who have spiritually and financially hit bottom in their lives. Its great, meaty material for an actor to take on and despite my issues with Crazy Heart, Bridges gives the performance of his career.

Crazy Heart is about a once well known and successful country singer (Jeff Bridges) whose career is now relegated to doing gigs in bowling alleys and seedy bars. An alcoholic, Bridges’ character’s life is a complete mess until he meets a young, aspiring single-mom journalist (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who requests to interview him. The two develop a romantic relationship as Bridges tries to overcome his demons and get his career back on track.

The narrative of this movie is nothing original, which is my biggest complaint. We have seen this type of story countless times and it has become as formulaic as any romantic comedy out there. However, what it lacks in originality, it makes up for in Bridges’ delivery, who carries the entire film on his back. Like The Wrestler, this film looks as if it was written specifically for Jeff Bridges. He does a remarkable job portraying this character’s struggles and beaten down view of life. We see through his eyes what a regrettable life he has led and what he has lost career- and life-wise because of alcohol. His efforts to come back is what kept me interested in the film.

One performance that is sadly being overlooked by the critics is that of Maggie Gyllenhaal’s as the single mom journalist. She also gives the best performance of her career, which is saying a lot given her great acting in Secretary. In fact, I think Gyllenhaal was just as captivating to watch as Bridges was. There is one scene in particular that really showed off the strength of her performance and it is toward the end of the movie. Considering how young the actress is compared to Jeff Bridges, the two actors did a fine job in creating a chemistry between them. I never viewed their relationship as an old guy taking advantage of a young woman and that could have easily occurred in the hands of less experienced actors and badly written material.

A movie about a country singer cannot be discussed without mentioning the music and this is where the film shines just as bright as the performances from the actors. T-Bone Burnett composed the original songs for the film and even if you’re not a fan of country music, you will be hard-pressed to not at least appreciate the quality of music here. I was also quite surprised what a good singing voice Bridges had (I assume its his voice we hear rather than a dub), but I guess thats to be expected if you’re going to cast any actor to play a singer.

With all the praise I’m lavishing upon Crazy Heart, why then give it only 3 1/2 stars? As great of a performance Jeff Bridges gives, the derivative story and the meandering pace of the film really detracted from my overall enjoyment of it. I appreciate and love great acting, but I appreciate and love a good story more. Without Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart would be nothing more than your run-of-the-mill drama thats better suited for television. All the character arcs and plot points are easily predictable from the very beginning. The pace of the film is slowed to a snails pace, which especially drags when we’re forced to watch one scene after another of Bridges’ alcohol abuse. We get it. He has a problem. I wished the filmmaker had explored the show business and other aspects of Bridges’ personal life more. For example, we learn that Bridges has a son he has not seen since he was a baby. Other than one short scene where he calls his son, nothing more is shown. I understand the story is supposed to be about his addiction and relationship with the mom, but the filmmakers bad pacing made me wish there were more sub-plots to pick up the film’s energy.

Crazy Heart is a decent film and this is mostly because of Jeff Bridges. I have always been a fan of the actor even though its difficult to think of a single film of his that I love (oh wait, The Big Lebowski is one). Its too bad because it would have been nice to have seen his greatest moment be contained in his greatest movie. Instead we get his greatest moment in a sub-par, at best average, movie.