Thursday, January 6, 2011

'Country Strong' is weak on insight

No faulting Gwyneth Paltrow, but Country Strong sings a wobbly tune.

No amount of country spunk can conceal the pain that ripples through the life of Gwyneth Paltrow's Kelly Cantor, a country/western superstar who has hit a bad patch. When she was five months pregnant, a drunken Kelly fell off a Dallas stage and lost her baby. She hasn't been the same since. Well, who would be?

Country Strong, the movie about Kelly's attempted comeback and her on-going tussle with fame, boasts some decent music, but it plays as if writer/director Shana Feste built it around the mistaken notion that a dash of drama, a carload of accents, a bit of sexual intrigue and a dollop of show business cynicism add up to a satisfying big-screen experience.

They don't, and Country Strong winds up tasting a bit like last night's binge. A whole lot of tears have been shed in it, but the beer's still stale.

The movie opens with Kelly in rehab, where she's met Beau (Garrett Hedlund), a handsome young man who likes to sing, and who plays fair guitar. Beau's also destined to become part of a love triangle involving Kelly's husband and manager, played by real-life country star Tim McGraw, who appeared opposite Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side.

It's an index of something gone wrong that McGraw, whose acting ability may be too under-developed to catch all his character's complexities, doesn't sing. Just about everyone else does. The singing actors are all pretty good, although Paltrow's mostly kept away from microphones until a climactic show in Dallas, where Kelly's supposed to make a redeeming comeback.

To thicken the movie's country stew, an aspiring singer (Leighton Meester) becomes Kelly's opening act. Meester's Chiles Stanton is unashamedly ambitious, and once she overcomes a tendency to freeze on stage, she's pretty darn good. Of course, she's also eager to use Kelly in order to advance her own career.

The movie's music isn't half bad, but the ethos that pervades Country Strong seems to have been fabricated from a substance that can be found behind many bulls in many country fields. It goes something like this: Some singers - that would be Hedlund's Beau - are pure. They sing because they love the music, and don't give a hang about adulation. Give 'em a bar on a Saturday night and a thumpin' back-up band, and they're happy as farmers on government subsidy.

Fame, we're told, is not compatible with love, which may be why poor Kelly has allowed her life to spiral toward the bottom of a Smirnoff bottle. Fame has killed the love in her. Well, almost. She seems to feel something for a baby quail that she rescued from a field and keeps in a tiny box. The bird, by the way, eventually vanishes from the picture without explanation.

Confusion reigns when it comes to the love we find in Country Strong. McGraw's James loves his wife, but holds himself back from her, probably because he can't forgive her for being drunk and losing their baby. He's tied to her by what's left of his love and a need to feed off what remains of her career.

Beau, who's recruited for Kelly's comeback tour, seems to have genuine feelings for her, but he also develops a relationship with Leighton's Chiles.

Hey, I'm all for love, even when it takes a few detours, but none of these relationships have as much depth of feeling as a fine country tune, and Country Strong isn't exactly brimming with revelation or a sense that it's grasped something essential about the world of country music. Put another way, it's not likely to do for Paltrow what the role of Bad Blake did for Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart; i.e., win her an Oscar.

Oh well, Paltrow's already won one for Shakespeare in Love, which may prove that she's better off with an English accent than a country twang.

But acting isn't the issue here. Paltrow knows how turn on the charm (watch her in a scene in which Kelly visits a Make-A-Wish child); Hedlund, last seen in the 2010 edition of Tron, has shufflin' credibility; and dang if Meester isn't convincing as a squeaky-clean and perky singer with a less than pristine backstory.

I can't say I hated watching Country Strong, but, like Kelly, it badly needed a trip to rehab - not the kind with shrinks, but the kind with screen doctors who might have been able to give its shopworn story a makeover.

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