© 2011 Ray Wong
It's been a few years since Gwyneth Paltrow was in a lead role in a feature film, and she chose to "come back" as a Country singer in Country Strong. The result may not be exactly what she hoped for.
Kelly Canter (Gwyneth Paltrow) is a "washed up" Country superstar who has spent the past eight years in and out of rehab. Her husband and manager James (Tim McGraw) takes her out of rehab before she's ready, since he's staging her comeback tour in Texas. She insists on having her "sponsor," Beau (Garrett Hedlund), open for her since he's a good singer, too. Meanwhile, James wants a pretty ex-beauty queen Chiles (Leighton Meester). After a brief fight, they compromise and bring both singers along.
Beau is supposed to keep an eye on Kelly, keeping her off booze and drugs. But while Beau is on stage doing his opening numbers, Kelly sneaks past everyone and starts taking pills again. James is frustrated. Kelly is jealous because both James and Beau are flirting with Chiles. Little does James know, Beau and Kelly are actually carrying on an affair behind his back. Meanwhile, Chiles is developing a crush on the cool and talented Beau. Talk about a love square.
Knowing Kelly will never leave James and having feelings from Chiles, Beau breaks it off with Kelly. That sets her into a tailspin and she starts to drink heavily again. James is stuck in an estranged marriage while trying to be the best manager for Kelly -- except Kelly is tired of it all. Through it, Beau realizes he doesn't want or need any of that showbiz bullshit: he just wants to sing, and he makes a proposal to Chiles to come with him to Los Angeles.
Gwyneth Paltrow (Iron-Man) has shown off her singing talent before, and she's matured here (and Country seems to fit her relatively thin voice just fine). She plays the vulnerable but effervescent superstar just fine -- that is a lot of emotions and crying and feeling sad. I just can't help but feel this is nothing but Oscar-bait, and I'm not completely convinced by her performance. Garrett Hedlund (TRON Legacy) is surprisingly strong as a singer, and he gets to act in this movie (he had nothing much to do in TRON). In a strange way, he reminds me of Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain and that's a compliment.
Tim McGraw (The Blind Side) continues to show his acting chops. Ironically, the country star doesn't sing in this movie. But McGraw's maturing acting skills make us forget "oh, he's a singer first." Leighton Meester (The Roommate) is pretty, sweet, cute and vulnerable as Chiles. Her acting is a bit on the soft side, but I see good things happening to her in the near future.
Written and directed by Shana Feste (The Greatest), the drama is heavy on internal feelings, struggles and interrelationship mumble-jumble and light on plot. In fact, I could have summarized the entire plot in one line: "Country superstar wallows in self-destruction and messy relationships with two men she loves." That's pretty much it. The rest is just to get them from point A to point B.
Now, character-centric dramas are not necessarily a bad thing. The King's Speech, for example, does that beautifully with intrigue, tension, and genuine characterization. The problem with this screenplay is that it's devoid of any suspense, intrigue, or tension. Sure, there are conflicts, but they feel forced and unconvincing. Often I don't understand the motivation, and it seems these characters only exist to shout and cry just because they feel like it. We're given enough backstories to understand the reasons why they're so screwed up, but they are not enough to connect the dots. The dialogue ranges from heartfelt to really cheesy.
The main problem, other than the lack of a plot, is that as a character-driven drama, the characters are thinly drawn. I never fully understand them. As emotional and thoughtful as they are, they never seem deep to me. More like "paint by numbers" at times, like there's a checklist for each character: She's perky and vulnerable, and he's cool and thoughtful… While the actors do their best to bring three-dimensionality to the roles, the characters and situations simply feel contrived, all the way to the predictable ending.
And then there are the songs. Many of them are quite catchy and pleasant, but none really stand out. And Feste lingers for too long, and often it feels more like a music video than a drama. We even get an extended 10-minute-plus performance by Paltrow at the end complete with costume change. I understand music is important in this genre, but in more skillful hands, the music could have been integrated better (for example, Walk The Line, Crazy Heart).
On paper, this may have sounded like a great character-centric drama that showcases Paltrow's talent. In reality, this is anything but strong.
Stars: Gwyneth Paltrow, Tim McGraw, Garrett Hedlund, Leighton Meester
Director: Shana Feste
Writer: Shana Feste
Distributor: Screen Gems
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements, alcohol and drug abuse, sexual content
Running Time: 112 minutes
Script – 5
Performance – 7
Direction – 7
Cinematography – 7
Editing – 7
Production – 7
Total – 6.4 out of 10