If not for the music, “Country Strong” would barely be a wimper at your neighborhood multiplex. Gwynneth Paltrow may not be underscored by her strong vocal credentials as she belts out some snappy country-and-western tunes, but she is certainly underserved by the contrived, lackluster material delivered by Shana Feste. If you want really good Paltrow, watch the November episode of “Glee” where her Holly Holliday character more than holds her own against the exuberant all-singing, all-dancing cast. Or hope she fares better in Steven Soderbergh’s sci-fi thriller “Contagion” due out this fall. Otherwise, chalk up her current screen vehicle as an unfortunate career blip. As for “Country Strong,” forsake the film and buy the soundtrack.
Feste’s sophomore effort as a director-writer follows her debut feature “The Greatest.” No, not the 1970s autobiopic about and starring Muhammad Ali, although Feste was born the year that was released. Her first movie came out weakly at the box office, more than a year after a promising premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2009. The decently-reviewed and poorly promoted film, a drama about a troubled teen and a family dealing with the death of their son, starred Carey Mulligan. The other film the then unknown British actress was promoting at Sundance that year bowled over the crowds a day after Feste’s was shown. That movie, now considered Mulligan’s breakthrough, was “An Education” and earned her an Oscar nomination. All “The Greatest” received in the awards basket was a Grand Jury Prize nomination at Sundance. “Country Strong” has doubled that, with best original song noms, including one by the folks putting on the Golden Globes.
As I said, get the album, forget the movie.
And will the movie bring music-loving fans in to see their Tim McGraw NOT sing and take a step back from his fine performance in “The Blind Side” to portray a sly son-of-a-bitch, I-forgot-how-to-love husband/manager? Maybe in Nashville (where it was filmed) and other country-and-western pockets of strength.
But if you must drag yourself to “Country Strong,” you’ll find Paltrow as Kelly Carter, popular singing sensation brought down by an alcohol addiction that caused the loss of a child during pregnancy. She’s a wobbly bird, which all too obviously reflects on a lame secondary story in which the recovering superstar has taken a liking to a baby quail in a box. Yeah, human chick meets bird chick. Which will fly and which will falter? Anyway, Kelly has also befriended Beau Hutton (Garrett Hedlund, recently of “Tron: Legacy”), a scruffy hunk and member of the support staff at the rehab center, in a fairly intimate way. They make music (he also sings in area bars, etc. in his off hours) and other things (in a strictly PG-13 manner) together, until James (McGraw) rips his wife out of her treatment for an ill-advised three-Texas-city comeback tour. It’s not a pretty moment for Kelly or her fans, and by the time the entourage gets to Dallas, where Kelly, a year earlier, had met her current demise, the clichéd road to disaster is already paved with eye rolling regrets. The public’s cruel headlights looked fine (financially, not emotionally) to James, but they were blinding to Kelly, and it only took her opening a package with a nasty message from a fan, or her getting jealous over Beau’s interest in the young, beautiful, stage frightened up-and-coming singer Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester, television’s “Gossip Girl”) to sweep the self-destructive singer out of her dressing room to the nearest bar or liquor supply cabinet.
While nicely photographed by John Bailey (“The Big Chill,” “Silverado,” just two of my favorites he shot), the undernourished story dredges up (mostly better) memories of other self-serving music- or star-centric tales like “A Star Is Born” or “The Rose.”
At its best, “Country Strong” is country music served up on a lukewarm platter this wintry season. Wait for the rental; hopefully the DVD will have more music, too. If you must go out (please do), there are enough fine films that can provide plenty of entertainment value–well maybe not in the singing arena–but they will have more awards recognition beyond best song.