Directed by Shana Feste. Starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Tim McGraw, Garrett Hedlund, Leighton Meester. (2010, PG-13, 112 min.)
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Jan. 14, 2011
If much of the hackneyed dialogue here has the ring of lyrics scribbled on a bar napkin to the saddest song ever writ, well, that’s sort of the point – and even the pleasure – of Country Strong. No country cliché is left unturned in writer/director Shana Feste’s four-part-(dis)harmony ditty about a multiplatinum artist battling addiction and three Nashville players snared in her devastating orbit. Paltrow plays chart-topper Kelly Canter, hatched from rehab at film’s beginning for another kind of rehabilitation – this time of her career – after a show in Dallas ended in a boozy fall that miscarried her second-trimester pregnancy. Canter’s manager-husband, James (played by real-life country superstar Tim McGraw, who curiously doesn’t sing a peep till the closing credits), hurries Kelly back on tour, to the disapproval of an orderly (Hedlund) at Kelly’s detox center who also happens to be her fuck buddy and a budding talent himself (with a name like Beau Hutton, how could he not be, on both counts?). Kelly hits the road with both beaus – husband and lover – plus up-and-comer Chiles Stanton (Gossip Girl’s Meester) as an opening act and subplot provider for a soupçon of All About Eve-like intrigue. (And couldn’t you just make a meal out of the chicken-fried character names?) Kelly’s a trainwreck – “from the bottle to the bottom,” indeed – and when Paltrow’s gumming the floor on another spectacular bender, it’s a jolt to the system, like a muscle-memory spasming back to when she knocked the collective socks off in Hard Eight. In the concert sequences, when she’s meant to cowboy-queen over amphitheatres packed with denim and sweated Stetson hats, Paltrow’s too constitutionally patrician to believably pass as a Shania-like personality (although the production team has a winking eye for New Country stage showmanship; see the American flags unfurling like a punch line and a Jumbotron backdrop of video horses, hooves a-thunderin’). But Paltrow does well in less Biblically scoped scenes; she’s got charisma to burn, and nicely straddles the faultline between sass and tremolo teariness. And then there’s supporting player Hedlund, who’s really the gruff and grizzled lead. He may be vastly more famous for his Lycra-wearing, discus-throwing turn in the new Tron reboot, but he’s dead-sexy here as Beau, the self-righteous singer-songwriter bucking at the trappings of fame. (The songs are penned by Hayes Carll, among others.) Hedlund’s got a hell of a voice, rotgut-ragged, and whether he’s crooning or wooing, whatever he’s selling, and no matter how cornpone, I’m buying.