Country Strong

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Unintentionally hysterical, “Country Strong” is another variation on “A Star Is Born” assembled with all the skill and depth of a third-rate made-for-cable tearjerker. A textbook case of predictability, cliché, and superficiality, Shana Feste’s movie can claim only a single asset: the decent, if not spectacular, musical performances delivered by three of the four principals. Charting the “comeback” of a substance-abusing recording artist caught between her controlling manager husband, her younger lover, and her own demons and insecurities, “Country Strong” drowns in its own melodramatic self-seriousness, from locked dressing room fits to on-stage meltdowns.

As multiple Grammy-winning country music star and slow motion train wreck Kelly Canter, Gwyneth Paltrow can’t entirely shed the elitist, blue blood, power-cleanse entitlement that has served her in a string of British-accented roles including “Shakespeare in Love,” “Great Expectations,” and “Emma.” On paper, the Canter part looks juicy, and hard-luck country singers have earned Oscars for Sissy Spacek, Robert Duvall, Reese Witherspoon, and Jeff Bridges. In each of the previous cases, however, some amount of identifiable human complexity was present; Canter remains so thoroughly opaque we have to take her word that she wants to rebuild her shattered image, since her behavior suggests otherwise.

Feste’s murky screenplay often loses track of Kelly to juggle the rivalries and recriminations of husband James (Tim McGraw, the only legitimate country music star in the bunch, in a non-singing role), rising talent Beau Hutton (Garrett Hedlund, likable) and determined ingénue Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester, pretending to lack confidence as a performer), each of whom occasionally threatens to steal the spotlight. Many scenes almost collapse under the weight of their own shameless mawkishness, from an awkwardly laughable bedroom cold shoulder to the fluffy and symbolic quail chick nicknamed Loretta Lynn that Kelly intends to nurse to health to the contrivance of Kelly’s redemptive serenade to a little boy dying of cancer. “Country Strong” embraces every stereotype in a tight bear hug.

In his own way, Beau behaves as erratically as the boozy, addled Kelly, inexplicably flip-flopping when it comes to his feelings for “country Barbie” Chiles. Initially, he treats the shallow dim-bulb with outright contempt, mocking her beauty contestant credentials and questioning her devotion to “real” country music. Later, despite a promise of fidelity to the already adulterous Kelly, Beau finds it hard to resist Chiles’s physical charms (essentially setting up a strongly hinted-at four-way romantic roundelay that, perhaps regrettably, never comes to fruition). Feste herself cannot seem to make up her mind about Chiles, alternately painting the character as a calculating Eve Harrington and as an earnest sweetheart.

“Country Strong” also has the distinct misfortune of arriving a season after “Crazy Heart,” a superior treatment of some of the very same landscape. While both Paltrow’s Kelly Canter and Jeff Bridges’s Bad Blake must atone for their failures and transgressions, only the latter character is rendered with deep reserves of nuance and detail. All four of Feste’s core characters live just outside the grasp of verisimilitude – Chiles’s stage fright freeze-ups are notably phony. Both “Crazy Heart” and “Country Strong” feature tunes meant to exemplify the challenges and regrets of the protagonists, but while “The Weary Kind” readily communicates its unique value to Blake, none of the songs in “Country Strong” share the same kind of emblematic, self-defining importance to the frustratingly unknowable Kelly.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 1/10/11.

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