Country Strong unsuccessfully tells two stories at the same time. First, there is the story of the Britney Spears-esque country star Kelly Canter (Gwyneth Paltrow, Iron Man) that has been in rehab after an alcohol-induced on-stage accident that took the life of her unborn child. With pressure from her manager husband James (Tim McGraw), Kelly leaves rehab early to start her comeback tour. It quickly becomes evident that business is the only thing holding their marriage together. He blames her for their child’s death and she is sleeping around with an orderly to fill the void – which ties into the second story.
The orderly that Kelly has been sleeping with is Beau Hutton (Garrett Hedlund, Tron: Legacy), and local country artist who has a knack for strong song-writing. As Kelly begins her tour preparation, she insists that Beau open for her. James opposes, setting his sights on Taylor Swift-ish beauty pageant youngster Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester, Gossip Girls) as opener. As you would expect, both Beau and Chiles join the tour and chemistry develops.
Just like Kelly’s backstory, Country Strong is filled with heavy thematic elements. The story constantly sways back and forth from Prozac happy times to overly dramatic sad times, ending up with an overall “downer” feeling. The mixture of Crazy Heart‘s “washed-up, drunken country star” and Walk the Line‘s “foolishly in love quest” blend like oil and water.
Country Strong‘s story is filled with cliched elements from bad country songs – but that is not the worst part of the storytelling. Whenever Country Strong strives to be original, deep or symbolic, it completely loses it. As Kelly is leaving her wooded four-star rehab center, she pulls out a small box containing an abandoned baby bird that she stumbled across in the previous weeks. For the first half of the movie, she and James have to go out of their way to take care of it. Playing a supporting role in the film, you feel that the bird holds a strong symbolism for something yet-to-be-revealed – but halfway through the movie the bird is ditched and never mentioned again. I have struggled to find some sort of meaning for it, but it has all been in vain – which is how the majority of the film plays off.
The performances in Country Strong aren’t terrible, but they sure aren’t great either. Although Gwyneth Paltrow acts circles around this inexperienced cast, the directing, editing and make-up sure don’t do her any justice. Because of the directorial decisions, scenes that are meant to be heartfelt and emotional play off as hammy and melodramatic.
Garrett Hedlund shows that he is not ready to lead a film unless is a special-effects driven blockbuster, a la Tron: Legacy. Like fellow Gossip Girl Blake Lively (The Town), Leighton Meester shows that she might have some real acting potential if she is given a good script and director to work with. But the casting of real-life country star Tim McGraw as a non-musical character in a movie about country rock is the most baffling. The role of James Canter should have gone to somebody with acting chops. Instead they gave it to the only country performer in Hollywood just to cast “one of their own.” Considering the mediocrity of his performance, if they were hellbent on casting him they should have given him a musical performance that would have suited his abilities.
The only thing Country Strong got right was picking on the bad teen bubble-gum country pop music that has invaded nearly every genre of music radio – i.e., Taylor Swift. Other than those small jabs, Country Strong is one forgettably long flat note.
Photo credit: Screen Gems