Jeff Bridges is a national treasure. The sheer variety of roles he's played -- computer nerd (Tron), alien (Starman), shock jock (The Fisher King), gunslinger (Wild Bill), businessman (Iron Man) -- has proven him to be an invaluable asset for any movie, one that keeps getting better with age. And his latest role, while reminiscent of past performances, demonstrates how he can immerse himself in a character, especially one that's incredibly unflattering.
Bad Blake is a 57-year-old country singer of the old school, one who has fallen hard since his heyday, and now tours the Southwest in an old pickup truck, pissing in bottles and playing gigs at bowling alleys and honky-tonk saloons. With his long grey hair and goatee, Blake resembles an older, heavier version of Bridges' now-classic Jeff "The Dude" Lebowski -- only this time, when he has a highball glass balanced on his paunch, it's not a sign of laziness but of alcoholism. The first thing he buys when he gets to every town is a bottle of his trademark favorite booze, if he can afford it. Sometimes, a fan is willing to buy it for him in exchange for him laying a request at the show, and he will, as long as he doesn't have to leave the stage and vomit.
It's Blake's walking of the line between functioning and nonfunctioning alcoholic that makes it even vaguely believable that a thirtysomething small-town reporter and single mother (Maggie Gyllenhaal) would be interested in him. Blake is dependable one moment -- showing up to his gigs on time, taking care of her son all day -- and undependable the next -- driving off the road while asleep at the wheel, hooking up with the Sparkle Motion lady from Donnie Darko. Luckily, his attempts to commit to a relationship with Gyllenhaal's character help him re-establish a relationship with his old protegé Tommy Sweet, now a big country star played by a surprisingly deferent Colin Farrell. Blake wants to record another album, but Sweet's label wants Blake to write Sweet some more songs first, something he hasn't done in a while, but which comes naturally to him.
You can spend the whole film watching Bridges convey the weariness and self-loathing Blake feels, but you're really waiting for him to mess up either his lovelife or his worklife something awful. Ultimately, he messes up one of them really bad -- I won't say which one, but rest assured it's for the better -- and along the way he writes some beautiful, classic-sounding country tunes, penned in reality by Ryan Bingham and T. Bone Burnett. One of them, "The Weary Kind," is nominated for a Golden Globe; another gives the movie (and the book it's based on) its unfortunately generic title. Blake's heart isn't crazy, it's just addicted to booze, but Booze-Filled Heart just doesn't roll off the tongue the same way.
Gyllenhaal is her usual sly and/or shy, sexy self here, and it would have been nice to get some more background on her, perhaps to understand why she falls so easily for a fat, self-deprecating, not particularly charismatic old drunk. The always-entertaining Robert Duvall has a small supporting role as the owner of Blake's regular performance spot near his home in Texas, but doesn't really do much besides go fishing and drive Blake to rehab. (I wonder if he agreed to be in it because it bears a striking resemblance to his own Tender Mercies.) The plot, what little there is to speak of, is fairly predictable and easily wrapped up at the end, but it's not the main reason to see the film -- see it for Bridges, who adds another indelible character to his hall of fame, one that may even eclipse The Dude.
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