Review: Country Strong is Quite Old Fashioned, But Not So Good
by Jeremy Kirk
January 8, 2011
The joke goes - if you play a country song backwards, you get your house back, you get your wife back, and you get your dog back. If you play the new twangy drama Country Strong backwards, you probably won't get your time back, but it might make a less than interesting film a bit more worthwhile. Filled with tedious plotlines of melodrama and alcohol-induced theatricalities, it rides a consistent line between meddling and out-and-out boring. Hey, at least it's long, so by the time the overblown and extremely disconnected finale hits you, you've long since played every Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson song in your head to pass the time.
Gwyneth Paltrow stars as Kelly Canter, a past-her-prime country music starlet who imbibes in bottles and bottles of liquid courage. When the film starts, she is in rehab, duetting in song and in more personal ways with Beau, played by Garrett Hedlund, an orderly who moonlights as a local singer and songwriter. When Kelly's husband/manager, played by Tim McGraw, decides it's time to get Kelly out of the hospital and back on the road, Kelly insists Beau tours with her. Likewise, Kelly's husband insists Chiles, played by Leighton Meester, a former beauty queen who also sings, also goes on the tour with them. Many lines of country music favorites about drinking and sleeping around play out with all the nuance of… well a country song.
Writer/director Shana Feste isn't concerned with subtlety here. The Days of Our Lives sense of character she gives everyone does little to provide any favorable light on anyone. There are moments here and there where small beacons of hope seem to want to crack through the exteriors, but, for the most part, there isn't a likable person in the whole bunch.
Everyone seems to be thinking about numero uno, particularly Kelly who is evidently drinking to forget the tragic accident that got her in the hospital to begin with. Of course, that accident was entirely her inebriated fault, so you can't cast much sympathy her way for that either. Any time Beau's character seems headed in the right direction, his actions, especially the "I can't stand her so you know we're bound to end up together" antics towards Chiles, derail his sense of acceptance with the audience. McGraw, strangely the most talented of performers in this film, makes his role somewhat likable even when his actions are less than decent.
All of these character connections ball up and roll down a story highway that never tries to push itself. The group tours from city to city, performs various concerts, and they all end the same way. Beau and Chiles sing and play adequately, while Kelly quietly and sometimes not so quietly gets liquored up back in her dressing room. The downtime in between, the hanging out in hotels and doing Make A Wish favors for Kelly to get back in the good graces of her fans, scream for something a bit more delicate. Feste could learn a thing or two from watching Sofia Coppola's films, and God forbid should she learn to be more *gasp* pretentious.
And that's probably where Country Strong's biggest drawback comes into play. These are important people to the world they inhabit. Kelly is a star to millions of adoring fans even if she is headed down an unseemly path. Chiles is soon to be the "next big thing." But there's no importance felt in anything that goes on. Actions do have consequences in Country Strong. That is definite. The relationship between Kelly and her husband, the most interesting found in the film, has been nearly shattered by Kelly's actions. But there's no weight to any of it, a definite side effect to the thinly executed characters and in-your-face outbursts that come at every turn.
Those performances come off lively enough. When Paltrow actually does take the stage and actually performs, Feste shoots it with a sincerity, a conviction that makes you believe this could be the biggest performance of one woman's career. It's everything that comes before and everything that comes after (we'll get to that in a moment) that threatens to be a freight train crash in the making. It doesn't help matters that everyone in the cast is just on the upper side of adequate with Paltrow almost sleep-walking through her role. As said before, McGraw brings a likability to his character and pulls out some genuine emotion in sporadic puddles of a dried out range. Hedlund is all neck vein and strut, and he isn't too concerned with projecting much other than his voice. Meester might as well be a wallflower, serving more here as a device than an actual character, and the actress doesn't do much to change that direction either.
And then comes the ending - a choreographed finale of manipulative arrangement that still finds a way to come out of left field. And that's not a good thing. It almost seemed like Feste wasn't sure how she wanted to leave her characters, how she wanted the world in the film to be after the credits rolled, so the rug ends up being pulled out from underneath all that nuisance. It's the easiest way to pull emotion a screenwriter can conceive, but it works neither in conception or execution. All that is left is a morbidly humorous idea of a day after we aren't shown.
Country Strong might appeal to fans of the subject matter at hand. There are certainly some foot-stomping tracks on the soundtrack, that are kind of linchpins to keep the fan base interested in everything else. That everything else, though, is a deep freezer of hackneyed drama and soap opera-style histrionics. At least a country music song is less than five minutes long. At least you can stand to sit through one of those a time or two. At nearly two hours in length, Country Strong doesn't even have the Southern hospitality of brevity.
Jeremy's Rating: 4.5 out of 10