Paltrow was better served on her recent appearance on Glee as a singing substitute teacher for the glee club. I'm sure if she would have asked, they would have let her try her hand at a few country songs on the show and she could have gotten the urge to go country out of her system. What we learn about her character on that one-hour show is much more than is disclosed in Country Strong, and on Glee she was a supporting player onscreen for all of 30 minutes. In Country Strong, she's the star and her character is the sun all others revolve around. Yet other than the fact she's an alcoholic singer who lost a baby and has an arrogant jerk for a husband/manager, her character's an enigma. And that's one of the main reasons Country Strong never works. Who is this woman, this troubled entertainer we're supposed to be so wrapped up in despite her obvious flaws? Writer/director Shana Feste never lets us in on anything other than the most superficial facts about any of the characters who make up the Country Strong ensemble. And if Feste doesn't care enough about her characters to make them into real people instead of just country music cliches, then there's no way an audience is going to be able to embrace any of her creations.
The StoryBeau Hutton (Garrett Hedlund) is a good-looking singer/songwriter who loves to play his music in front of appreciative crowds in dive bars. They love him, he loves them, and all is right with the world. But when Beau's off the stage, his real job is to help out at a rehab center and that's where poor Beau encounters the woman who turns his world completely upside down.
Country superstar Kelly Canter is a patient at the rehab hospital, and of course she and Beau make a connection over music. They try out lyrics on each other, and you know that's not all they're 'trying out' together. The six-time Grammy winner - don't worry if you don't catch how many Grammys she's won the first time she says it, it's repeated over and over again throughout the film lest we forget how great this troubled singer once was - had to cut short her latest tour after a disastrous show in Dallas in which the then five month pregnant alcoholic was so drunk she tripped over a mic cord, fell, and lost the baby (thankfully we don't actually see this tragic event). Now she's trying to get herself together in what's likely an expensive, exclusive rehab center, but her manager/husband James (Tim McGraw who never sings) has other plans. Against everyone's advice, James pulls Kelly out of rehab a month before she's scheduled to be released. Why? So she can get back on tour because, you know, that's the best thing for someone in her fragile condition to do. Beau argues against it, but an extremely rude and condescending James puts him in his place and pushes Kelly into agreeing with him that she's ready to leave.
The next major leap of faith comes when James decides to hire on Beau and an unknown beauty queen (played by Gossip Girl's Leighton Meester) to open for Kelly when she hits the road on tour again. She's a six-time Grammy winner who sells out arenas, and her controlling, manipulative husband/manager signs up two people with no experience to open for her after seeing them perform once in a bar, a performance which found the beauty queen freezing up and unable to open her mouth until Beau took to the stage to help her. Does this make sense to anyone? No matter, it happens, so we must live with writer/director Feste's decision and forget about logic. As long as Kelly's still got that baby bird to nurture, everything will work out in the end, right?
So now we've got the unlikely trio of a train-wreck of a country singer, an emotionally vulnerable beauty queen who can actually sing, and Beau - the sensitive hunk both women desire. Throw in the pushy manager/husband who no longer wants to sleep with his wife or support her emotionally and it's a time bomb just waiting to explode. And there's that bird to consider, too. Don't forget about the bird.
The ActingPaltrow's singing is fine and she has a few moments where the script doesn't completely let her down. But overall there's an 'I'm working toward an Oscar moment' vibe that pollutes her performance because by the time the end comes, Paltrow's denied an award-worthy payoff.
Meester is cute and perky as the beauty queen with a dark past, and she's also a fine singer. McGraw doesn't get to sing, which is unfortunate for his fans, and instead must play totally against type as an increasingly loathsome character so repulsive it's hard to even care he's the father of the deceased baby. But truthfully the only actor able to emerge from this disaster unscathed is Hedlund (Tron: Legacy). Hedlund's completely charming as the up and coming musician with a huge heart and ready smile. And if you're totally bored of the film's plot, he does provide a significant amount of eye candy so at least there's something worth glancing at the screen for. Plus, he's got a pleasant singing voice and when he's up on stage performing to the crowd, you can actually picture him being out on a real tour and entertaining the masses.
The Bottom Line:True story: Walking out of the screening of Country Strong I was asked by the publicist what I thought of the film. This is common practice, and usually I either run away quickly acting like I didn't hear the question or I give a one word response. "Cute." "Horrible." "Decent." Very, very occasionally I'll offer up a "brilliant" or "hysterical." But most of the time I prefer to gather my thoughts, let the film sink in a little, and then spill out what I think in rough draft form before writing up a full review. That's why I more often than not just take off without saying anything. In the case of Country Strong, I was absolutely fine with telling the publicist what I thought of the film. Without pausing I let him know I was very worried about the unanswered question of what happens to the baby quail who's such an important part of the plot. Who cares about the silly pretty people who populate this incredibly poorly conceived, cliche ridden, mess of a film? Not I. But the poor little bird was so darn cute and helpless, I couldn't help but feel sorry for his involvement in the film. Of all the characters in Country Strong, the bird was the only one I cared about, the only character who made a connection that lasted after I left my seat. And that just goes to show what an utter waste of time Country Strong is.
Writer/director Feste should have turned to someone not so caught up in the story for a total rewrite. Country Strong won't win over anyone not into country music, and even fans of the music genre won't find much to cheer about with this all-over weak film.
Country Strong was directed by Shana Feste and is rated PG-13 for thematic elements involving alcohol abuse and some sexual content.
Theatrical Release Date: January 7, 2011