Country Strong (2010) Screen Gems
1 hr. 57 mins.
Starring: Gwyneth Paltrow, Tim McGraw, Garrett Hedlund, Marshall Chapman, Leighton Meester, Lari White, Jeremy Childs
Directed by: Shana Feste
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Rating: ** stars (out of 4 stars)
Writer-director Shana Feste’s countrified concoction Country Strong means well enough in terms of its sentimental ode to the heart and soul of country music and the casualties that it creates within the lyrical landscape of despair and determination. However, Feste’s weepy-eyed exposition also sadly resembles a misconstrued melodrama that revisits the cliché-ridden themes of corn-on-the-cob desperation regarding plagued artists that crash-and-burn before their redemption is realized. Thus, Country Strong feebly plays the same old familiar tune of angst and alienation seen countless times before.
The sluggish build-up in Feste’s musical malaise is a hokey by-the-numbers showbiz yarn predicated on its contrived convictions. The movie audience is asked to travel along the rocky road with a disillusioned female country singer’s quest for self-discovery amid the selective crisis that persists: a hound dog of a philandering managerial husband causing heartache at a moment’s notice, the elusive big break in the music business, retaliatory adultery practices, a scarred and shady past too painful to cope with at will, signature country ditties meant to convey manipulative mood swings and off course references to rehab stints (both pertaining to the bottle and singing careers). Surprisingly the only emotional elements left out by Feste’s mundane imagination in Country Strong are sleepy-eyed mutts named Duke and moonshine jugs scattered in the backwoods.
In short, Country Strong plays like a teary big screen Lifetime channel Mason-Dixon Line melodrama drenched with syrupy strife. Oscar-winner Gwyneth Paltrow portrays country cutie Kelly Canter, a troubled singing sensation burdened by a previous horrific experience that has crippled her tattered psyche. It doesn’t help matters that her eager two-timing hubby James (country superstar Tim McGraw) literally strong arms his weak-willed rehabbing wife out of a recovering facility in favor of preparing her to tour the country music circuit. This of course begs the obvious question at hand: is Kelly ready and prepared to handle the pressures of reclaiming country music glory?
Naturally, things become quite complicated when Kelly engages in a love affair with Beau (Garrett Hedlund, “Tron: Legacy”), her acquaintance at the recovery facility that coincidentally happens to be a songwriter/singer with low key aspirations in music. Conveniently, Beau is slated to be Kelly’s opening act along with the addition of former beauty queen and songbird Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester from TV’s “Gossip Girl”)-a particular favorite find of an enterprising James. And so the quartet are off and running on a three-city tour bogged down with surfacing distrust, disdain, disenfranchisement and doubt…all which leads to the climatic Dallas concert where Paltrow’s Kelly Canter gets to demonstrate her wondrous vocal chops as the unfolding drama reaches a preachy pinnacle in-the-making.
The added bonus here in Country Strong may be these two selling points: the acting stretch of Paltrow’s heavily-reported competency in carrying a marvelous tune and the film’s cozy soundtrack of country music that allows a certain resonance to the otherwise drowning dosage of percolating pathos. There are a couple of observations to consider regarding these couple of points. For starters, Paltrow has previously sung decently in other films before (“Duets” and “Infamous”) so this leaves one wondering what the big deal is about her belting out melodic songs in this particular picture? Plus, the country melodies being featured may please fans of this selected genre of music but strangely the songs are never quite memorable or distinctive enough to win over potentially new admirers or lend something different and compelling to current enthusiasts.
What appears frustrating about Country Strong is its penchant for leaning heavily on the shallow shoulders of Paltrow’s whiny persona. Her Kelly Canter characterization is understandably wounded but Paltrow wallows in her transparent torment to the point of this distracting routine undermining what theatrical surge she really could bring to the stage when performing as a reasonably stable comeback artist. After collapsing and kicking around in self-doubt and dismay you almost wish that Paltrow’s country singing diva would receive a quick swift slap from the self-imposed pity party that she attends in her scattered and insecure mind.
The lopsided and languishing script by Feste does not compliment the continuous conflicts and confrontations that feel synthetically forged together by its plastic-contained plight. The contradictory feelings showcasing jubilance and jeering amongst the four lead characters never reaches a steady impasse. Therefore, Country Strong is rendered as disjointed in both its static sentimentality and dramatic execution. Amazingly, McGraw-the only true singer of this banal bunch-does not utter a melodic note at all. Newcomers Hedlund and Meester go with the flow and sometimes look like they’re on the sidelines witnessing the drawn-out drowsiness until the privileged Paltrow achieves momentum when leading up to her so-called big moment in the spotlight.
Country Strong could have been a sturdy tear-jerker vehicle for country music junkies had its misplaced cocktail of detached artistry and personalized persecution not clash like a pair of purple cowboy boots accessorized with a cotton red flannel shirt.