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Movie Review: ‘Country Strong’

January 7, 2011

File this one under guilty pleasure.  This sudsy soap opera is set against the angst-ridden world of country music, and it jams every Lifetime Television cliché imaginable into a running time just shy of two hours. There’s a constant barrage of booze, drugs, depression, adultery, love, and loss. I’d be flat out lying if I said I didn’t enjoy it immensely.

If you are the type of person who can’t wrench yourself away from the Lifetime Movie Network (guilty as charged) you will eat this stuff up.  I’m already fantasizing about when this movie will go into heavy rotation on cable.

I can’t really defend the movie as fine film making. It’s a mess of a story that jumps all over the place.  Writer and director Shana Feste seemed to try to cram way too many storylines into the film, and it suffers as a consequence. It’s also not particularly original, if you have ever seen any movie about the country music industry.

However, what this film has got going for it is Gwyneth Paltrow, and a talented supporting cast. Gwyneth seems like a ridiculous choice to play a country western star. She’s an elitist blueblood actress who was born into a heavy-hitting Hollywood family (Blythe Danner is her mother, the late Bruce Paltrow was her father) and has alienated a lot of her fans with her self-righteous Goop website.

But a funny thing happened this year. Paltrow has been a master at reinventing her public persona with a humble appearance at the Country Music Awards, and a wildly popular guest appearance on Glee. Next up is a Saturday Night Live hosting gig on January 15.

Her performance in Country Strong should ingratiate her even more to the public.  The reason I bought her in the role is because she is not playing a “coal miner’s daughter” type country star.  She’s a pop-country princess with blonde hair extensions and wardrobe changes between singing sets. Her concerts are all about the spectacle and the showmanship, not necessarily about country roots.

Paltrow is a natural performer, and reminded me of a cross between Shania Twain and Carrie Underwood.  This new breed of country singer doesn’t shy away from the occasional auto-tune, and is more likely to be adorned with sequins than a cowboy hat.

When Country Strong begins, five-time Grammy winner Kelly Canter (Paltrow) is spending her last day in a cushy rehab facility. Her husband James (Tim McGraw) is springing her from the joint a full month early, against the advice of an attendant and aspiring country singer (Beau, played by Garrett Hedlund) who works in the facility.  James agrees to let Beau accompany them on a mini comeback tour he has scheduled for Kelly.

Kelly entered rehab on the tail of a scandal. She fell off of a stage while drunk (and pregnant).  James wants to show the American public that she is all better. Trouble is, she’s not, and deep down, everyone knows it. Money talks, and Kelly is a commodity, so all the obvious warning signs are brushed aside so that the show might go on.

James has arranged for a cute and pert little beauty pageant country singer wannabe (Chiles, played by Leighton Meester)  to accompany them on tour as well, as an opening act.  It’s a cruel move, because Kelly is all too aware that the girl is being groomed to be the next country “It” girl right under her nose, by her own husband.

Of course Kelly is no saint, either. The first legs of the tour are a disaster, as she relapses and swigs vodka from a bottle. Instead of doing the rational (and right) thing, all her handlers look the other way, hoping to complete the tour. It’s like all those movies where an athlete is forced to play one more game, and you just know it will end in tragedy.

Over the course of the three date tour, Beau and Chiles become overnight sensations, all the while Kelly continues a downward spiral of panic and despair.  There is an amazing amount of incestuous hanky-panky that goes on between touring group in a very short period of time.  You practically need a scorecard to keep track of all the liasons.

Kelly passes the torch off to her protege, so to speak, when she gives Chiles a handful of practical advice prior to the final concert.  It’s a bittersweet moment.  Kelly clearly doesn’t want to be performing any longer.

Leighton Meester was much better than I expected her to be.  She is, as Beau so plainly states, “country barbie”.  Underneath mountains of foundation,  her shellacked lips and fake eyelashes, Chiles is somewhat naive, and genuinely kind hearted.  It’s such a contrast to Meester’s conniving character on Gossip Girl that it is jarring.  But she pulls off the cherubic look of a cute little country girl with ease.

Garrett Hedlund (Tron: Legacy) has a rugged charm here.  He sings well enough, and should garner a legion of devoted female fans from this movie.  Tim McGraw plays a self absorbed asshole pretty well, also.

Paltrow has never looked better, and there is no doubt she can sing her guts out. The concert finale alone is worth the price of admission.

The film becomes a bit preachy toward the end, painting fame as a wicked bitch.  As Kelly says, fame and love can’t live together. Cheesy, right?

Ultimately, the story has way too many balls in the air to be truly cohesive, but as an examination of a fallen celebrity, it’s pretty dead-on. You can’t help but think of all the Lindsay Lohans and Britney Spears we’ve seen who have been chewed up and spit out by the celebrity machine.

Rating 3.5/5

Country Strong is rated PG-13.  Directed by Shana Feste, starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Garrett Hedlund, Tim McGraw, and Leighton Meester.  You can watch a trailer below.


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