Several months ago when I first saw the trailer for Country Strong, I could take it or leave it. I don't like country music and haven't been impressed with Gwyneth Paltrow since The Royal Tenenbaums. My interest piqued, however, when I saw Paltrow perform on an episode of Glee this fall. Her voice was surprisingly good, and her performance on the show was refreshing. After a newly sparked interest in Country Strong, I knew Paltrow had the vocal chops, but how would she do playing an addict?
Country Strong focuses on the fictional Kelly Canter (Paltrow), a Grammy-winning, multi-platinum selling country singer, who is released from rehab a month early and is immediately rushed into a three-date tour by her manager/husband, James (Tim McGraw). Joining the pair on the road are Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester), a beauty-queen-turned-country-singer and Beau Hutton (Garrett Hedlund) an orderly at the rehab facility with whom Kelly had an affair.
While the acting is exceptional, the cast is constrained by the limits of the script, which was written by relative newcomer Shana Feste, who also directs. Paltrow's Kelly is obviously a hot mess from the start, but viewers never learn why. We know that Kelly was arrested in Dallas for being drunk and disorderly at her own concert after she fell 10 feet from a platform while she was five months pregnant, thus losing her baby. This explains the rehab stint, but we never find out why she turned to alcohol and pills in the first place. Paltrow, along with the rest of the cast, works well with what she's provided, but it's a shame she wasn't given more.
At times it seemed like there were two different films fighting it out for screen time. There is, of course, the story of a falling star, but it's also the tale of the two aspiring musicians. Had director Feste placed less emphasis on Kelly, it could have been a decent story about love and musical aspirations. Conversely, it would have been more interesting if the filmmakers had cut down on the scenes with Beau and Chiles and concentrated more on Kelly and how she got to this point in her life. Either way, the film aches for more back story.
Though country music may not ever play on my iPod, I can appreciate singing talent. Paltrow, Hedlund and Meester all sounded incredible. It's possible that when it comes down to the music, Hedlund stole the show right out from under Paltrow. His deep voice matched the country tunes beautifully, and when I wasn't distracted by his patchy beard, he was quite the performer.
The screenplay reeks of melodramatic clichés, but the scene I found most touching was when Kelly visits a school in Austin at a Make a Wish Foundation appearance. A sick little boy wishes to meet Kelly, his favorite singer, who creates a song for him on the spot and dances with him in the classroom. It's a sweet moment, and a small glimmer of hope escapes from the black hole of addiction that has consumed her life.
Paltrow recently said in interviews that, while preparing for the role of Kelly Canterr, she e-mailed her pal, Robert Downey Jr., seeking advice on how to play an addict. Whatever advice he gave her seemed to work; her portrayal didn't seem overacted, and you could feel her anguish. Even so, the film's uneven script just doesn't hit all right notes.
Starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Tim McGraw,
Garrett Hedlund, Leighton Meester.
Written and Directed by Shana Feste.