Whatever Happened to the Dude?
by ELEANOR MORROW
The Dude entered all of our lives somewhere in the 1998-1999 era and jokes based on his one liners ("he peed on my rug!", "mind if I do a J?", "there's a beverage here", "they killed my fucking car") touched the lips of every person more concerned with his own amusement than the pleasure of others. Now the Dude has been recast in a full length motion picture where he is essentially himself, only slightly different: Whiskey rather than vodka is the new Dude's poison of choice. For a hard luck alcoholic, the Dude is better at making it work for him than most. Sometimes I put on Blown Away just to remind myself Jeff Bridges still has a face under whatever's growing on his. The new Dude is named Bad Blake, and he's a singer/songwriter.
But wait - Bad Blake has entered into the unlikeliest of romances! And what's not to like? Bad Blake, his handle in Scott Cooper's Crazy Heart, is a alcohol-swilling malcontent who coasts through life under the premise that someone may recognize him and be grateful enough for that human contact that they take mercy on him. Blake is constantly having to conform to a society that mystifies and disturbs him. For example, he performs at a bowling alley.
The Dude was never this way. He wanted out from the conspiracy, to leave the rat race and the popular culture behind him and just relax. He was too old and too fully automated to be forced to change. In contrast Bad Blake wants to change, like a hopeful puppy. And he does. In Crazy Heart, he kicks his lifelong history of alcoholism in under 90 seconds, a record only surpassed by one of the Lizzy McGuire movies, if I'm not mistaken.
You'll spend most of Crazy Heart luxuriating in the fact that Blake's "romance" with Maggie Gyllenhaal is so unusual. I mean, they both like Lefty Frizell, but only one of them I guess actually met Lefty. To make this romance even more unusual than is commonly depicted in collected oeuvre of Zooey Deschanel - including her fake "marriage" to Ben Gibbard - the two connect while she interviews Bad for a story she's writing for an mp3 blog.
Adding to the super-realistic complexity of the entire situation is that Maggie has a son, who is named Buddy. Was he called this just so the Dude can get a lot of mileage out of creepily/kind-of-jokingly connecting to Maggie's teeny son while he says "Buddy" upwards of 5,000 times? When Maggie and Buddy show up at Blake's house for a visit, he has a breakdown and loses the kid in a bar somewhere. I mean, what is this rule about children not being in bars? The last three bars I went to had children in them. Blake and Maggie spend most of their time connecting one-on-one about how unusual this is. The Smiths never come up.
In between, Blake heads out on the road, or what is left of it. We witness scenes where Blake stumbles around like an elephant walking the high wire, vomiting and then heading onstage for more. The performance segments prove Bridges isn't the worst singer in the world, and although Crazy Heart captures little of the thrill (or lack thereof) that drives Blake from town-to-town, above all we are in the hands of someone who loves to be the center of attention.
Broke and fucked-up, Bad Blake is forced on the mercies of his former protege Tommy "Ponytail Beeswax" Sweet. Needing the money, Blake performs the opening act for his incredibly popular student, acting like a petty master the whole time. At one point the silly-named Sweet joins Bad on stage and we can feel the older man's resentment, like, "You'd take this from me, too?" What kind of room could a woman find in the life of such a person?
As the Dude's life tumbles to shit as it was wont to do after Donny was lost to us and the Dude got Donny's ashes in his beard, he enters into a wholly unexpected creative period.
Crazy Heart equates the painful onset of a hard life with the material necessary to create art, hardly a new perspective on the matter. Bad Blake's previous hits (written largely by Jeff Bridges and one super-cute duet with Colin Farrell, "Falling and Flying") were rollicking, unapologetic anthems. Seeing Blake grind through them one more time is like watching someone with obsessive compulsive disorder cleaning their room.
In the flush of getting laid by a worthwhile woman for the first time in three decades, the new music Blake writes is introspective, heart-stopping. His unusual girlfriend starts a weepfest in bed because she overhears him playing something memorable. It'd be hilarious if it was Joe Francis, but in the otherwise capable hands of the Dude it's a goddamn shame.
Later he tells his other buddy (Robert Duvall, who also gets a song on the soundtrack and produced Crazy Heart) about this woman he met. He sounds like a sixteen year old instead of a multiple divorcee. Soon enough the Dude is dressing more modern. He starts to resemble Harrison Ford. His incredible 90 second recovery from alcoholism belies the fact that he was the least harmful drunk in the history of drunks. Blake starts wearing a cell phone on his hip like everyone else over 50, and he's not as crabby during soundcheck.
Maggie calls Bad up one day. "I'm worried about you," she tells him. He's making eggs on the clean stove. It got that way because of the energy level he maintains while not craving alcohol. He's clean-shaven, looking at something in the pan. He's happy, in artistic control, and she is the one who becomes the wreck.
The pleasure-seeker - which the Dude most certainly is - pursues his self-satisfaction in many guises. Bridges' strength as a performer has always been the way he slips into a role while simultaneously being unrecognizable; the acting equivalent of deja vu. This pleasure seeker has his fill of life's tiny little orgasms, until in a candid moment a doctor tells him to stop smoking, stop drinking, and lose 25 pounds. Just 25! Did you see what this guy ate in a motel room in a towel?
For the pleasure seeker, a heady grasp on your own mortality is part of the package. For the Dude, money itself has no value or status, it is simply the means to a more explosive end. He tells Tommy Sweet, who he apparently taught guitar to, and who therefore owes Blake a living for some reason, that he needs money, but he's lying. That's the last thing he needs.
Tommy Sweet is played by Colin Farrell, which is a laugh. They might have been better off with someone who could sing, but Farrell at least brings a star magnetism to the role of a pouty superstar. Hearing him vocalize Blake's finest artistic achievement is painful, but mostly because Farrell's smoked approximately 49,000 cigarettes in his short life and his lungs look like two black testes.
By the end of Crazy Heart, instead of being emasculated by this intrusion of commercial culture onto his own personal throwback lifestyle, the Dude tells his ex-girlfriend that he's taking it one day at a time, possibly the worst cliche in a long history series of them. The point for the pleasure-seeker is the experience rather than the end result. In Blake's case, it produced a work of art, so the pain was worthwhile. You gotta ask: what's Brad Pitt's excuse?
It isn't what happens in Crazy Heart that's terribly exciting. It's not the places we go in our heads or in the real world. For people like Bad Blake, life is shortened, abbreviated, childlike. This is the exact position that being the constant moving target of a consumer culture puts us in. It's no wonder Blake sends Maggie's son Buddy gifts to spoil him and win his favor. That's the only appropriate expression of his grief for what's been lost without adult behavior and artistic maturity. It's a way of participating in life that is distinctive to this time and place. The Dude would have mixed himself a White Russian and told everyone to fuck off.
"The Weary Kind" - Ryan Bingham (mp3)
"Live Forever" - Robert Duvall (mp3)
"If I Need You" - Townes Van Zandt (mp3)
"Brand New Angel" - Jeff Bridges (mp3)
"Reflecting Light" - Sam Phillips (mp3)