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Bridges Superb in Gritty, Strong ‘Crazy Heart’

"I used to be somebody / But now I'm somebody else."

Seldom has a line sung in a film captured the essence of its main character — and the movie itself — so well as the above couplet, which is performed in "Crazy Heart" by a washed-up, way down on his luck country troubadour by the name of Bad Blake.

More sad than bad, Blake is a chain-smoking alcoholic who is 57 and, as the film starts, has $10, a vintage acoustic guitar and a battered pickup truck to his name. Once a country-music star, he now barely can stumble through life at the best of times. Then again, there seem to be no best of times, only less worse times, for this grizzled country-music archetype (who looks like Kris Kristofferson and is based in part on Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings, by way of Hank Thompson and Townes Van Zandt).

Jeff Bridges portrays Blake with pitch-perfect accuracy, both as a singer (he ably handles his own vocal parts) and as one of life's much-less-than-beautiful losers. An enormously gifted actor who has already earned a Golden Globe nomination (and growing Oscar buzz) for his superb work in "Crazy Heart," he is able to convey a mountain of emotion with the most understated facial gesture or a slurred, seemingly offhanded turn of phrase. It's an almost perverse inversion of his dim-bulb stoner, "the Dude," in 1998's "The Big Lebowski."

Bridges' warts-and-all depiction of Blake enables him to make this constantly soused musician, with his faded swagger, simultaneously pitiable, alarming and captivating. He brings battered humanity to a character that hit rock bottom long ago and decided to stay there. Blake functions in a boozy haze, if just barely, and seems beyond embarrassment — or is simply too burned out to notice or care.

Shortly after the film begins, Blake arrives at a bowling alley in Pueblo, Colo., where he is booked to play in the lounge with a young local pickup band. After he fails to arrange a bar tab, he is told he can have "all the free bowling you want," an offer that inspires a priceless expression of disbelief in response. His performance that night finds him fleeing the stage midsong to vomit in an adjacent alley, then returning as if this is a normal occurrence (which, for him, it clearly is).

The scene soon shifts to another town and another dive bar, this one with a more talented pickup band but an equally drunk Blake. He is initially aloof when interviewed in his seedy motel room by Jean, a young music writer and single mother, played with both vulnerability and wariness by Maggie Gyllenhaal. But Blake is soon drawn to her, prompting him to evade her questions about his distant glory days with a great come-on that almost works: "I want to talk about how bad you make this room look."

An affair ensues, but doesn't go where expected. There are strong supporting performances by Robert Duvall (as a bar owner and good friend of Blake's) and Colin Farrell (as a former Blake band member and protege turned solo star). In an especially nice touch, Blake's hapless "manager" is a dead-ringer for record industry mogul Clive Davis in his younger years. Sharp-eyed viewers who stay for the closing credits will spot the name of ex-Nickel Creek violinist Sara Watkins among the ace musicians featured on the movie's soundtrack.

"Crazy Heart" is a first-time film effort by screenwriter and director Scott Cooper. His periodic lapses in storytelling are more than offset by his command of the country-music milieu and his trust in letting his very talented cast tell the story in an earthy, no-frills manner that feels a lot like real life.

"Crazy Heart." Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes. Rated: R. 3.5 stars.

To find out more about George Varga and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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