"Crazy Heart" is about fictional country singer Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges), so down on his luck his latest booking is in the cocktail lounge of a bowling alley, where he's given second billing to "Winter Leagues Forming."

That's not the only reference to Bridges' "The Dude" role in "The Big Lebowski" (1998). "Crazy Heart" goes beyond Coen Brothers' caricature to depth of character. Credit Jeff Bridges for that. He's the reason to see "Crazy Heart."

Blake, behind the wheel of his old brown and cream two-tone Chevy Silverado, crisscrosses the American Southwest, with local bands backing him up as he sings and plays hits he wrote decades ago.

He depends on cigarettes, bourbon, old movies on TV and the kindness of strangers to get him through the night. He rarely gets back to his brick home in Houston, Texas, and last saw his son when the boy was four. Blake's belly's so paunchy, he opens his belt buckle when he drives his truck or lazes about in cheap motels.

Meeting up with Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), who Blake mentored only to see the young star's career far eclipse his own, and with Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a younger female reporter, indicates better days may be coming. Still, there are twists and turns down the road a piece.

"Crazy Heart" is a minor-key masterpiece. First-time feature director Scott Cooper wrote the screenplay based on a 1987 novel by Thomas Cobb. The film accurately depicts the music-business, mid-market print journalism and the ravages of alcoholism.

Director of Photography Barry Markowitz ("Sling Blade") captures beautifully the expanses of the American West and its sometimes shabby roadside attractions.

T-Bone Burnette (born Joseph Henry Burnett), nominated for a song Oscar and Golden Globe Winner (with Ryan Bingham for "The Weary Kind"), co-produced the songs with singer-songwriter Stephen Bruton.

The music is crucial to "Crazy Heart," even more so than for Burnette's work on "Walk the Line," the Johnny Cash biopic, and "O, Brother, Where Art Thou?," a 2002 Grammy album of the year winner.

The songs in "Crazy Heart," many co-written by Burnette and relative unknowns Gary Nicholson, Bingham and Bruton, notably "I Don't Know" and "Fallin' and Flyin,'" have a Buddy Holly meets Willie Nelson meets Grateful Dead vibe.

Blake, as portrayed by Bridges, nominated for an actor Oscar and a Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globe actor winner, is, to quote "Me and Bobby McGee," feeling "as faded as my jeans." Bridges creates a cantankerous, alienated and sadly comical guy.

Bridges, with Wild Bill Hickok-style hair and gray beard, resembles Kris Kristofferson. Bridges, who released a CD, "Be Here Soon" (2000), burnishes onstage moments with a Leonard Cohen-esque voice and Waylon Jennings' country "outlaw" swagger.

Gyllenhaal, nominated for a supporting actress Oscar, is an apple-cheeked, clear-voiced counterpart to Bridges' growly gruffness. Her wide eyes offer a sanctuary of solace.

Robert Duvall, who with Bridges is one of the film's producers, gives his trademark taciturn turn as a bar owner who provides Blake the voice of reason and experience. Farrell is remarkably believable as an urban country star topping the charts.

The movie is not unlike "The Wrestler" (2009), which starred Mickey Rourke, for its capstone issues of regret, redemption and renewal. It also draws favorable comparisons to "Tender Mercies" (1983), for which Duvall won an actor Oscar as a down-and-out country music singer.

The title "Crazy Heart" is a somewhat deceiving. "Smart Heart" might be more like it, once Bad Blake wises up.

"Crazy Heart": MPAA rated R (Restricted. Under 17 Requires Accompanying Parent or Adult Guardian) for language and brief sexuality; Genre: Drama, Music, Romance; Run time: 1 hr., 52 min.; Distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Credit Readers Anonymous: "Crazy Heart" is dedicated to Stephen Bruton, who died soon after the film's soundtrack was completed.

Box Office, Feb. 19: "Shutter Island," reteaming Leonardo DiCaprio with director Martin Scorsese for the fourth time, didn't blink on its way to an impressive $40.2 million-opening at No. 1, pushing "Valentine's Day" to No. 2, $17.1 million, $87.4 million, two weeks. "Avatar" moved up a notch to No.3, $16.1 million, $687.8 million, 10 weeks.

4. "Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief," $15.3 million, $58.7 million, two weeks; 5. "The Wolfman," $9.8 million, $50.3 million, two weeks; 6. "Dear John," $7.3 million, $65.9 million, three weeks; 7. "Tooth Fairy," $4.5 million, $49.8 million, five weeks; 8. "Crazy Heart" moved up one place, $3 million, $21.5 million, 10 weeks; 9. "From Paris with Love," $2.5 million, $21.2 million, three weeks; 10. "Edge of Darkness," $2.2 million, $40.3 million, four weeks

Unreel, Feb. 26: "Cop Out" stars Bruce Willis as a New York City police officer who, with his partner (Tracy Morgan), tries to track down a thief who stole a rare baseball card. Kevin Smith directs. The movie also stars Seann William Scott.

"The Crazies," directed by Breck Eisner, son of former Disney honcho Michael Eisner, is about inhabitants of an Iowa town going insane after a toxin contaminates the water supply. The movie stars Radha Mitchell and Timothy Olyphant.

Tune in to Paul Willistein's movie reviews on Lehigh Valley Arts Salon, 6 - 6:30 p.m. Mondays on WDIY 88.1 FM Lehigh Valley Community Public Radio. Read previous movie reviews at www.tnonline.com. Email Paul Willistein at: pwillistein@tnonline.com and on Facebook.

Three Popcorn Boxes out of Five Popcorn Boxes