'Country Strong' is country weak



Article Published: Jan. 13, 2011 | Modified: Sep. 7, 2011
'Country Strong' is country weak

Gwyneth Paltrow stars in 'Country Strong.'



frank@mountaintimes.com

Let's just get this out there. "Country Strong" sounds like a fragrance from Travis Tritt.

It stinks, but the musicianship is decent.

"Country Strong" is a maudlin melodrama inspired by the cliche and contrivances of poorly written country lyrics.

Despite decent performances from most of its cast (in both acting and singing), "Country Strong" is too uneven and oddly paced for audiences to connect.

You can see where director and writer Shana Feste ("The Greatest") wanted to go, but her broken pickup truck that ran over the dog of her cheatin' husband who shot her horse just doesn't take us there. "Country Strong" is too mired in country cliche to go anywhere, let alone offer substance or depth.

Star Gwyneth Paltrow ("The Royal Tenenbaums") weeps, cries and tantrums her way through the film's 112 minutes, occasionally singing and giving a glimpse of what could have been a solid performance. All of its actors show talent, no doubt, but are lassoed in by a stingy screenplay.

Paltrow is country superstar Kelly Canter, disgraced after a drunken stage fall results in the loss of her unborn child. This dreadful incident, coupled with Kelly's rampant alcoholism, has effectively doused the spark from her marriage with manager James (country artist Tim McGraw, "Friday Night Lights").

Holed up in rehab, Kelly starts an affair with orderly Beau Hutton (Garrett Hedlund, "Tron: Legacy"), an up and coming singer-songwriter content with playing the honky-tonk venues he frequents so well.

Eager to restore Kelly's success, James prematurely checks her out of rehab in preparation for a comeback tour, with Beau and dazzlingly beautiful singer Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester, TV's "Gossip Girl") as the opening act.

But Beau and Chiles don't necessarily mesh - at first. Chiles has stars in her eyes, aspiring to be the next Carrie Underwood, taking a pop country approach vs. Beau's old-school, lyrics-with-meaning take on the music.

Just like one of those pop lyrics, you can tell where things are going. Meanwhile, Kelly wastes no time falling off the wagon, botching a performance and completely missing another. She's a teary mess, just barely held together by James, along with some affection from Beau. Things get complicated, naturally, when Chiles takes a liking to Beau, and so on and so forth.

The melodrama gets old fast, as does our protagonist, Kelly. What Feste intended to be a three-dimensional, tragically flawed character falls flatter than a Steven Seagal country album.

It's tough feeling sympathy for a character you hardly know, but Feste expects just that, painting Kelly as a sobbing, generic caricature with her head stuck in a bottle (which even gets shattered against a wall in the rodeo of cliche). This may have worked, if "Country Strong" didn't take itself so seriously.

What does work is musical performance, as the actors do surprisingly well on stage, particularly Hedlund and, to a somewhat lesser degree, Meester.

Paltrow struts her musical stuff on occasion and can certainly belt it out, but it's far from a breakthrough performance. While Jeff Bridges stunned audiences with his role as a recovering alcoholic country singer in "Crazy Heart," Paltrow, though giving it her all, is singing a song (in this case, a film) that just doesn't work.

Like Paltrow, the film's ensemble performs to the best of its ability with the material given, but you can only strum so much on a broken guitar.

"Country Strong," rated PG-13 for thematic elements involving alcohol abuse and some sexual content, is playing at Regal Cinema 7 in Boone. For show times, visit http://www.mountaintimes.com/movies.

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