If the attraction between a 57-year-old alcoholic and a willowy young journalist in "Crazy Heart" feels like fiction, it's because the rest of the movie is so utterly believable. The dichotomy lies in an unusual place: Jeff Bridges' beard.

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Bridges plays Bad Blake, a washed-up and unwashed country singer with Kris' voice, Hank's liver and Merle's haggard face. Bad spends so much time smoking, drinking and vomiting that you'll begin to wonder about those discolored whiskers. Nevertheless, the beautiful Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal) concludes her interview by diving right in for a kiss.

Once that hurdle is cleared, however, writer-director Scott Cooper (working from Thomas Cobb's novel) handles this story with care and lets his actors do their excellent work. Gyllenhaal is sympathetic as a single mother (Jack Nation plays her 4-year-old son), but the movie belongs entirely to Bridges, who won the Golden Globe for best actor in a drama. His inimitable Jeff-isms have never been more endearing - the sloppy gait, the whiskey glass balanced on his chest, his general air of discombobulation.

The other stars are producer T-Bone Burnett and the late songsmith Stephen Bruton, whose original songs resonate so naturally in Bridges' diaphragm. It's telling that their music, like this fictional character, feels truer than anything that actually exists on the country charts today.

The film's only off note: Colin Farrell, whose uncredited but crucial role as a generic, pretty-boy singer never quite convinces. Then again, maybe that's the point.