Paul Newman is more feisty and rambunctious in "Blaze" than any film he's made in recent memory, and it's a real pleasure to see him tackle with lip-smacking glee the meaty role of Earl K. Long, flamboyant governor of Louisiana who, in 1959, began a torrid and much-publicized affair with an exotic dancer named Blaze Starr.
And though the movie seems to really be about Long, it's told from Starr's point of view (and based on her autobiography), beginning with her humble back hills roots in West Virginia and showing us how she inadvertently stumbled into her stripping career — largely because her desire to sing and dance outweighed her talent in those areas.
As written and directed by Ron Shelton ("Bull Durham"), Long and Starr's affair began with him simply lusting after her, then gradually developed into a romance of true love.
But it was ill-timed and ill-fated, as Long's term as governor was nearly over and the combination of his scandalous romance with Starr, his progressive politics — especially toward blacks — and his unfortunate incarceration in a mental hospital meant certain defeat in the next election.
Newman plays Long as a gravelly voiced, hard-headed individualist. His manipulation of others — whether a large group of voters or the friends and enemies he worked with — is masterful and he sees in Starr an innocence and intelligence oblivious to others who can't get beyond her drop-dead good looks.
For her part, Starr, played magnificently by newcomer Lolita Davidovich, is dense about some things and surprisingly wise about others. But her sincere affection for Long is apparent, and the old-fashioned love story represented in "Blaze" makes for fascinating material.
Unfortunately, despite their separate fabulous performances, there is little spark between Newman and Davidovich. Under these circumstances you might naturally expect some real heat, but "Blaze" tends to sputter along without ever catching fire.
In addition, there's little depth of character here and a number of unanswered questions. For example, Long's real-life wife, who was responsible for his mental hospital commitments and obviously an obstruction to his romance with Starr, is absent and never even referred to. So, late in the film, after Long proposes to Starr, there are domestic scenes that seem to imply they might be married — but later still it's apparent they are not. Audiences may rightly feel perplexed.
There are some nice touches in "Blaze," and Newman is obviously having a lot of fun in his role. But in the end it's a rather cloudy picture that scratches but never gets beneath the surface.
"Blaze" is deserving of its R rating, with considerable nudity and sexual scenes, as well as profanity.