Films about music stars, rock, country, or otherwise, have an added burden of having to produce quality tunes to go along with everything else. Some films, A Star is Born (1976) and Crazy Heart (2009) to name two, managed to rise to the occasion and make plausible the concept. Others put up lackluster tunes and ask too much of their audience.
Country Strong fits into the latter category. A movie seemingly dedicated to country & western music and songwriting, yet only able to dish out forgettable B sides. But the problem doesn’t end there.
Gwyneth Paltrow plays ‘Kelly Canter,’ an aging country “superstar” who is not only struggling with Father Time, but is a raging alcoholic who toppled offstage a year earlier and miscarried her second trimester pregnancy. This tragic reality haunts her and her manager husband, played by real country “star” turned reliable actor, Tim McGraw.
On the recovery road touring with Paltrow’s ‘Canter’ is a pair of wet-behind-the-ears song birds who are supposed to provide the love story. Garrett Hedlund (Tron: Legacy, Friday Night Lights) attempts a Waylon Jennings too-cool-to-sellout rebel as ‘Beau Hutton,’ juggling ‘Canter’s’ maternal affections and the adoration of the wide-eyed ‘Chiles Stanton’ (Gossip Girl’s Leighton Meester). Unfortunately for what could have been one of the film’s central conflicts, ‘Stanton’ is more Dukes of Hazard than All About Eve.
Writer-director Shana Feste handles the material with a made-for-tv kind of straight forwardness that lacks imagination. The flimsy story would have been better served by a more accomplished filmmaker capable of taking the themes of redemption and forgiveness to a more poetic level.
McGraw delivers yet another believable performance in his new career. I first noticed his ability and depth in Friday Night Lights (2004), playing an abusive father (coincidentally to Hedlund). Then he held his own opposite the Oscar winning performance by Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side (2009). The guy can act.
Paltrow, an Oscar winner from way back in 1998 for Shakespeare in Love, has yet to recapture her golden girl aura, putting out an unremarkable string of films (Bounce, Shallow Hal, Sylvia, Proof). She sparkled in the original Iron Man (2008) blockbuster, but the role was right in her wholesome wheelhouse and her screen time minimal. Country Strong called for more than runny mascara and some drunken bar top dancing. Apparently, more than Paltrow has in her tool box at present. There is one scene, however, that Paltrow nails. Still adored by her legions, ‘Kelly Canter’ is asked to drop in at a local elementary school for a Make-A-Wish Foundation recipient. Her sweetness towards the cancer stricken child and her obvious ability on the acoustic guitar make for the film’s most thoughtful moments.
But…does she make a credible country & western “superstar?” Nope.
Newcomer Meester is believable enough as the new “star” on the block, but she too gives pretty much a one-note performance; and, while Hedlund is likeable enough, unlike Colin Farrell, who stood out opposite Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart, he is not all that convincing as a country crooning heart-throb.
At one point during the film, my wife turned to me and said “Man, I would have been ticked off if we’d have paid to see this in the theatre.” I didn’t dislike Country Strong that much. But I still can’t recommend it.