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There’s a tear in my beer, for sure, after seeing the Hank Williams biopic “I Saw the Light,” a too simple a portrait of a complex man.
The tragic life of the oh-so-lonesome, onetime king of country music is fodder for not only a good honky-tonk song, but also a biographical movie. Williams, who died at age 29 in the backseat of a shiny new Cadillac, was one of the best songwriters ever, putting country on the map with hit after hit, including the film’s title and others – “Hey Good Lookin’,” “Move It on Over.” He also had a dark side brimming with whiskey and women. He snorted drugs to ease the pain of his undiagnosed spina bifida, a chronic back ailment that gave Williams his iconic hunched posture. Also, there was a stormy marriage and a warring wife and mother.
Given all that built-in drama, director and writer Marc Abraham puts forth an unimaginative, by-the-numbers movie propped up by its toe-tapping music and the pitch-perfect performance of Tom Hiddleston. Shedding his Shakespeare-trained seriousness and British accent, Hiddleston, aka Loki from “The Avengers,” convincingly does all the singing in fully inhabiting Williams’s rail-thin body, capped by the signature white Stetson hat. Hiddleston even yodels. His performance is about as right as country rain. But he’s all dressed up with no place to go.
In Abraham’s (“Flash of Genius”) hands, “I Saw the Light” is little more than a Cliff Notes version, hitting all the highs – the Grand Ole Opry – and lows – rehab – of Williams’ life without context or complexity. As far as musical biopics go, it’s closer to “Walk the Line” than “Love and Mercy.” In other words, simple and void of nuance. Something is said, something is seen and a song is sung. That’s it.
Even the supporting cast is saddled with one-dimensional roles designed merely to move the plot along. There’s the nagging wife with singing aspirations (Elizabeth Olsen, in a rare misfire); the loyal producer (Bradley Whitford); the overbearing mom (Cherry Jones, terrific until the script totally drops her storyline.) Maddie Hasson is Hank’s gorgeous teenage bride and Wrenn Schmidt is Bobbie Jett, the mother of Hank’s out-of-wedlock daughter.
Thanks to Schmidt, Bobbie is the only one of Hank’s women who registers. A lakeside scene, where Hank tells Bobbie he can’t marry her, is the film’s best and an example of the intimacy the film otherwise lacks. Instead, we get a series of re-enactments depicting key moments in Williams’ life, sans insight. I don’t feel like I know anything more about him than I did going in. I guess that leaves me with a bad case of the honky tonk blues.
— Dana Barbuto may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @dbarbuto_Ledger.
I Saw the Light
Cast Tom Hiddleston, Elizabeth Olsen, Bradley Whitford, Cherry Jones, Maddie Hasson, Wrenn Schmidt.
(R for some language and brief sexuality/nudity.)
Movie review: ‘I Saw the Light’ too simple for a complex man
*EMBARGOED FOR FRIDAY RELEASE*