Melodrama Weakens Gwyneth Paltrow in ‘Country Strong’

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Average: 3 (3 votes) Oscarman rating: 2.5/5.0
Rating: 2.5/5.0

CHICAGO – Modern country music is actually quite fascinating. Whereas in the classic days of the 1950s to ‘70s, when it was a cult stepchild of popular music, now it occupies the rarified heights of the Justins and Taylors. That is why “Country Strong,” starring Gwyneth Paltrow, is so annoying. It doesn’t even try to be modern.

What is wrong with an exploration of modern marketing, pop music co-opting and celebrity worship that accompanies the post millennial pickers of C&W? Why the silly retread of what is essentially an “All About Eve” story – big country star out of rehab trying to resuscitate her career while young ingenue steps in? With its old fashioned melodrama, it fails to connect.

Kelly Canter (Paltrow) is the country mega-star in rehab, after losing a pregnancy when she fell on stage (and her blood alcohol was 1.9…a TMI harshness that didn’t need mentioning). Her “sponsor” in the clinic is Beau Hutton (Garrett Hedlund), an up-and-coming country boy who plays Nashville honky-tonks straight out of a tourist brochure. Canter’s husband is James (Tim McGraw), who maintains the ambition of his wife’s popularity, even taking her out of the clinic before her stint is over.

Meanwhile, in a wild coincidence, Beau is playing the same club as Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester), an ex-beauty queen taking a stab at the country game. She has tremendous stage fright, and freezes because she knows that James Canter is in the audience, looking for an opening act for Kelly’s comeback tour. Beau helps her out and they kill, so James suggests they become a duet and join the show. The tour rolls on.

Kelly in the Pickler: Gwyneth Paltrow (Kelly) and Tim McGraw (James) in ‘Country Strong’
Kelly in the Pickler: Gwyneth Paltrow (Kelly) and Tim McGraw (James) in ‘Country Strong’
Photo Credit: Scott Garfield for © Screen Gems

It is revealed that Kelly and Beau were lovers. It is revealed that James has a thing for Chiles. It is revealed that Chiles reveals herself (in a bra and panty set straight from Junior Miss) to Beau. Will these triangles begin to straighten themselves, so Kelly can stay sober and on tour? Have you ever listened to a country song?

Looking at the descriptive, there are the clever country names of Beau Hutton and Chiles Stanton. It’s as if screenwriter (and director) Shana Feste came up with the names first, and tried to fashion a story around them. The narrative could have played in the 1950s, simply if they lost the rehab clinic and modern conveyances. It was that corny and melodramatic. None of the lovers seem to love each other, they were more in the “love the one you’re with” mode, which took away any semblance of relationship integrity.

Gwyneth Paltrow wasn’t a bad choice to play the role of the damaged Kelly, she has a pleasant singing voice and the acting chops to create a character, but Kelly was so poorly written and blowing in the wind, that Paltrow couldn’t reel her in. It got to the point where it didn’t matter what Kelly did, because it all felt false.

The supporting cast is only slightly better. Tim McGraw proved his profile in last year’s “The Blind Side,” and is asked to do much more as James Canter. He blew around as hard as his fictional mate, and seemed so schizophrenic in nature it would have served the story better to send him to rehab. Garret Hedlund and Leighton Meester are country fabulous, all white teeth and shiny manes. Merle Haggard is brought up several times as a country god, in this circle he would have been dismissed as an ugly roadie.

The music was pleasant, radio friendly and country strong, including a song called “Country Strong.” There is an early scene with Beau and Kelly writing a song together which was much more poignant and interesting than the later overproduced studio version, but that’s a small complaint. It almost becomes a concert film at some points, with the action rising or falling on the level of the song/performance. I don’t know Leighton Meester’s work on “Gossip Girl,” but she had a blank slate quality in her attempt to sell a song. Also, her character had the blowing-in-the wind problem, desiring to get beyond her pageant bimbo roots with educational flash cards, but squealing with delight when the dreary Miss America show came on television.

Wailin’ & the Willies: Garret Hedlund (Beau) and Leighton Meester (Chiles) in ‘Country Strong’
Photo Credit: © Scott Garfield for © Screen Gems

Screenwriter Feste I believe chickened out a bit. She wanted it both ways, to celebrate country music while trashing the character of its delivery system. In that wake there is a robotic feel to the relationships, with nobody in the story having any presence that would communicate them as a star. There are good singers at karaoke events, but we know they’re not going anywhere. That’s how the performers in Country Strong felt.

Maybe the great modern country music movie is yet to come, or maybe there is a coal miner’s daughter still lurking out there, with an honest sense, a raw talent and a desire to bring the audience with her. None of that was on display in this film, another weak pretender at the honky-tonk cafe.

“Country Strong” opens everywhere January 7th. Featuring Gwyneth Paltrow, Tim McGraw, Garrett Hedlund and Leighton Meester. Written and by directed by Shana Feste. Rated “PG-13” senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Senior Staff Writer

© 2011 Patrick McDonald,

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