Shana Feste's Country Strong is a pretty dismal, maudlin country music diva story with a few okay songs. I went in thinking I might like it. Then I went out. Now I don't think most people would like it.
Gwyneth Paltrow (Emma, Iron Man) plays Kelly Canter, a country star in rehab when we first meet her. She doesn't seem to be taking rehab too seriously, as she's hooked up with Beau Hutton (Garret Hedlund, TRON: Legacy), a country singer himself who happens not to be her husband/manager, James (Tim McGraw, The Blind Side). She's also released early, apparently cleared by staff who have little knowledge of what's really going on with her sobriety, resolve or psychological process.
But she needs a big event to resuscitate her career after a notorious incident in which she drunkenly careered off stage during a concert in Dallas. (We've Got to Make It to Dallas would be a good alternate title.) I won't spoil the specific details of that event, but I found them quite (seemingly unintentionally) hilarious. They wouldn't have been funny at all in real life, but as fictional plot points they promise more divine absurdity than is ultimately delivered.
I can't quibble with the acting, as veteran Paltrow and relative newcomers McGraw, Hedlund and Leighton Meester as beauty queen/country ingenue Chiles Stanton do rescue the film from moment-to-moment agony. They remain watchable, despite a script which works against them as actors, and against their characters as believable or relatable people. It's a bit like the recent The Tourist, endurable but rather substanceless. At least The Tourist nearly made that a feature.
The script is very derivative. One could call the film a country version of A Star Is Born, or Georgia. One could call it a female Crazy Heart, or a more-fictional Walk the Line. But it would be a minor affront to those superior efforts, so we must call it an unsuccessful version of any of these.
Kelly wants to take Beau on the road as her opening act. It's unclear whether her husband is aware of their affair. James wants Chiles Stanton. Kelly suspects him of an affair with her. They compromise and bring both. Beau is also supposed to help Kelly stay on the wagon. He's not very good at it. Chiles wants to know Kelly's Secrets of Country Stardom. She finds them out.
The baroque humor or over-the-top diva shenanigans one might hope for from the set-up don't materialize. Instead, we get some rather repetitive and uninteresting side trips as Kelly and the crew caravan from town to town on the way to Dallas. Everybody discusses their relationships ad nauseam. Tim McGraw and Garrett Hedlund have a purry sweet-nothing-whispering contest. I found the songwriting scenes close to physically painful.
But don't despair. If you're looking for a cinematic trip South, look for last year's Get Low, True Grit or Winter's Bone. If you want an artist struggling against profound demons, Black Swan. A moving and funny story of a family fight against substance abuse, Queen of the Lot or The Fighter. Great country music, get some Townes Van Zandt, instead of watching this film which references him only ridiculously as a throwaway laugh line. All this is available to the savvy media consumer, just not in Country Strong.
Country Strong is really just bad, too earnest to be fun camp soap opera, too silly to be taken as serious drama. If it aspires to anything worthwhile, it keeps its cards close to the vest about what that might be. A better movie might have been mounted using the bare bones of this plot and most of the songs, but instead we get this. And this is, sadly, a soggy, timid and forgettable mess.
Internet Movie Database Entry
Roger Ebert Review
Visit Alex Christensen's
Democrat Guide to the 2012 Race for President