"Jeff Bridges: The Dude Abides" debuts tonight at 9 p.m. in most markets as part of PBS' American Masters series. Check local listings.

"I hate actors. They never act like people. They just think they do." -J.D. Salinger, The Catcher In The Rye

There's a line we critics use when we talk about Jeff Bridges. We praise him because, "you don't see him acting." Watching Jeff Bridges: The Dude Abides, this idea comes up a lot. It's hard not to see why; even in his worst movies (the special tends to slide past these, for obvious reasons), Bridges exudes a warm, lived-in charisma. But I'd argue that one of the reasons he's so effective is that you can always see him acting. Watch him in The Big Lebowski, in what might be his signature role, and he's a hilarious, inept goof, but you can see the thinking behind the lines and pratfalls, the separation between the absurd surface and the real person buried inside. It gives the movie just the slight hint of sadness it needs, and our awareness of that conscious effort, the fact that we never really forget he's performing, paradoxically makes Bridges seem more human on screen. Because that's how people actually are, mostly: the personae we consciously adopt, and the soul that hides behind them.

The Dude Abides hints at this complexity, although it's mostly interested in pitching what has become the accepted narrative for Bridges' real-life, that he's basically just a more self-aware version of the Dude. Which is fine; Bridges himself seems more than happy to embrace the idea, and the few semi-candid moments the camera captures of the actor, either talking with his band-mates or joking with fans, make it hard to see him otherwise. More than anything else, the current iteration of Jeff Bridges—beloved cult figure, moderate mainstream success, pleasingly bearded—is the kind of male relative we all long for; genial, probably wise, and prone to making bad jokes. What's amazing it how much crazy stuff this lets him get away with. He's got his own band, but instead of looking like some mediocre vanity project, it just makes you realize that hey, that's actually a pretty good idea; sure, most of the people who come to see the group perform are there for Bridges the movie star, not Bridges the musician, but if you were that famous, and had access to that level of talent, why the hell wouldn't you start up a band if the mood struck you? Also, did you know that Jeff Bridges has a labyrinth at his house? He likes to wander in it when the mood strikes him. And that is awesome.

By and large, Abides plays as low-key and affable as its central figure, mixing the expected rhythm of talking head interviews (Bridges, some family members, the deathless Peter Bogdanovich, a surprisingly restrained and insightful Robin Williams, among others) with clips from Bridges' movies, photos from his childhood, and footage of Bridges going about his day-to-day business. There's not a lot of gossip here; the closest thing to a dark moment is either Beau Bridges recounting a fight scene in The Fabulous Baker Boys that went a little too far, or Bogdanovich suggesting there may have been some tension between Bridge's career status, and his father's near-miss at stardom. But really, this is minor, water-under-the-bridge stuff. In general, Bridges appears to have lived the life of a golden child with a remarkable, and honestly inspiring, lack of presumption. Born into a show biz family, he was never all that keen on acting as a child—his memories of his television debut in his father's show, Sea Hunt, in 1962, consist mostly of being uncomfortable and having to say his lines while breathing heavily. That reluctance has run through his career; whenever someone approaches him for a role, Bridges is quick to beg off. From someone else, this could sound like false modesty. From Bridges, it just sounds like a guy who loves his job, but never forgets that it is a job.


All this pleasantness makes for a pleasant bio-doc, if a somewhat unnecessary one. It's great to get a look at the photographs the actor takes of each production he works on—he uses a special wide-shot camera, and the resulting pictures really are striking. As is the fact that Bridges collects them in books that he hands out to the cast and crew of the films. There's some talk about The Last Picture Show—Cybill Sheperd pops up to remind us that she's still around—and most of Bridges' movie career is summarized, although not a lot of it in that much detail. Which is a little frustrating, really. Given how generally genial Bridges' personal life is presented here (and while there are probably a few skeletons in his closet, who really cares?), Abides should be a great opportunity to really get into his legacy in movies, and look at some of his career lows while marveling at the highs. At one point, Taylor Hackford, director of Against All Odds, talks about how important the movie was to jump-starting Bridges' career after the disastrous King Kong (one of the rare terrible movies where Bridges doesn't manage to rise above mediocre material)—more of that would've been more compelling than listening to Bridges' nephew, who makes multiple appearances.

But hey, mostly likely anyone watching this is watching to see some clips from great movies, here a few behind-the-scenes stories, and get some choice moments from the man himself. In that regard, Abides is basically satisfactory. It's hard to shake the growing impression that the Dude image is just another persona he's wearing, because it's easy, and because that's what most of us want to believe of him; Bridges himself admits late in the episode that he doesn't really know who he is. The best actors are the ones who never pretend that their job isn't a game, and that it isn't deadly serious at the same time. Abides is much better savoring the former than it is at considering the latter, but perhaps that's as it should be. We don't need to know how Jeff Bridges does what he does. It's all there up on the screen.