At the very least, Crazy Heart, writer-director Scott Cooper's debut feature in both of those positions, has a refreshing lack of pretension. No social commentary, no grand statements about the human condition, no wild aesthetic quirks that prove only that the director has more ambition than talent behind the camera. It is only a simple, rough around the edges character study, buoyed up by some pretty fine performances - despite what you may have heard, there are more people in the cast than just Jeff Bridges - and if its story (that is, the generally connected series of incidents that functionally mimic a story) feels a bit too much like one of the country songs that liberally dot the film's landscape, and not so much like a functioning drama... well, character studies are like that sometimes, and anyway, we like country music around these parts, especially if it's good country music.

And by God, Crazy Heart does have quite good country music: it has been quite a good long while since I've seen a film with so many original musical numbers, to also have such an impressive roster of original numbers; though one would expect no less from an old genius like T-Bone Burnett who, in addition to serving as one of the film's weirdly large slate of producers, co-wrote the songs and score with the late Steve Bruton and Ryan Bingham, the young frontman of The Dead Horses (he also shares his name with George Clooney's character in Up in the Air, another awards-season hopeful; this means absolutely nothing, but it's too miraculously strange not to mention). The song getting the big awards push is "The Weary Kind", which in the course of the film is written by Jeff Bridges's "Bad" Blake in the full influence of a love affair, and I suppose it's fair to say that it's the best new track we hear. But to focus on it is to miss out on several other songs, meant to be the biggest hits of Bad's decades-long career, and damn me if they aren't absolutely good enough for us to believe that yes, twenty years ago that number was enough to make young girls fall desperately in love with the singer-songwriter. Bridges sings and plays guitar on nearly every track, and he does a damn fine job of both: it turns out that he has a beautiful, whiskey-worn singing voice, which lends the songs that extra punch of vérité, that makes them sound as real country and not as movie music - since they were written by real country artists, this really shouldn't come as a surprise, and yet if you'd told me that my favorite part of Crazy Heart was going to be the soundtrack (that, indeed, I would especially like the sountrack at all), I should not have believed you.

And even if I had, and I had believed that Bridges would turn out to be great country singer, I would have absolutely called you a liar if you said, "oh, by the way, Colin Farrell turns out to have an outstanding singing voice, too", but that is also the case; in the role of Bad's long-estranged ex-protégé and current neo-country superstar Tommy Sweet, Farrell is actually the one who gets to sing "The Weary Kind", and who gives a stunningly deep and nuanced performance, despite featuring absolutely nowhere in the film's marketing, and having nothing more than a cameo-sized role. The exact nature of what happened between Tommy and Bad that caused their falling-out is never explored, but Farrell's brief performance makes it clear that he still idolises and worships this father figure who taught him absolutely everything.

It's but one of the fine supporting performances in a film that is being roundly described as a proving ground for Bridges; but that is terribly unfair to stars like Maggie Gyllenhaal (giving her first really fantastic performance in ages - since Sherrybaby, if I'm not forgetting something, and I'm not), or Robert Duvall, to say nothing of the huge cast of supporting characters and featured extras, almost every one of whom finds something interesting to do in their tiny span of the movie. Hell, if there's anything really special about Crazy Heart after the music, it's that there's really not a single false actor in the whole piece, from the headliners to the spear-carriers. Which is much rarer and precious than it ought to be, and it reflects incredibly well on Cooper that he was able to direct a large-ish cast to such uniform strength in his first at-bat.

But, Jeff Bridges is the best in show, if only because he's in essentially the whole movie (almost every single scene, and more than half of the individual shots), and gets a really complex, fascinating role to play. Bridges has a rock-solid steadiness, about him that makes him easy to take for granted, but there it is: he's one of the best actors of a good generation. I'm not prepared to join in the chorus calling Bad Blake the best performance of his career, because his career is rather too marked by a uniform level of quality, rather than particular peaks and valleys (for sentimental reasons, I would anyway pick The Dude); nor would I say, in the heat of passion, that it's the best male performance of 2009. No matter what the case, though, it is a great performance, never insisting on anything, exuding weariness every time Bridges moves his scraggly, bearded face (which makes him looks uncannily like Kris Kristofferson). He presents Bad as slow to outright shows of emotion, but never in a way that makes him seem bland; rather in a way that makes him seem cagey and eager to stay away from anything that makes him confront how disappointed he is in himself.

The only real problem with Crazy Heart is that it's so simple and focused on being the best character study it can be, that it has nothing else to it. We watch the film, we get to understand Bad, we are theoretically moved by his romance with a music journalist named Jean Craddock (Gyllenhaal) - the huge age difference is only a little bit distracting, and that mostly because Jean, like any other non-Bad character, doesn't have much there to deepen her, although Gyllenhaal suggests a great deal that isn't in the script - we hope for his redemption. That Cooper is able to tell this story with such a complete absence of fuss is more than admirable, particularly given the incredible strength of the performances, and the character who is being studied. But the self-conscious lack of anything truly cinematic (this story could be every inch as effective in a stage production - maybe even better, we'd be hearing the music live), coupled with how little thematic resonance the story really possesses (outside of the usual "a man can fix himself at any age" boilerplate present in at least two other movies currently in theatrical release) leaves Crazy Heart as something of a one-and-done film: altogether worth seeing, and worth enjoying the experience of seeing it, but there's just not enough meat on its bones to make it a lasting masterpiece.