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Country Strong (2010) **

January 7, 2011

written by: Shana Feste
produced by: Tobey Maguire & Jenno Topping
directed by: Shana Feste
rated PG-13 (for thematic elements involving alcohol abuse and some sexual content)
112 min.
U.S. release: December 14, 2010 (limited) & January 7, 2011 (wide)
I enjoyed writer/director Shana Feste’s previous film, last year’s “The Greatest” which dealt with a family dealing with grief.  It seems she wants to revisit some of that again, this time with a country music setting that unfortunately fails to twang it’s way into our hearts. Granted, there are a couple of scenes in “Country Strong” that invoke a tender authenticity, both start out sweet and then take an uncomfortably bitter turn. Those are scenes that show an Oscar-winning actress displaying songbird chops that strive to hide guilt and pain.  It would’ve been nice if the movie had more of these moments, instead of the tired clichés, gloomy scenarios, and meandering storyline we’re exposed to here.
As the movie opens, we’re introduced to one of those scenes I mentioned, as two people connect through songwriting. The young scruffy-looking guy is Beau (Garret Hedlund), who is working as an orderly at a rehab facility near Nashville, where Kelly (Gwyneth Paltrow) is seeking treatment. Visiting her room, he plays a song for her he’s been working on (we had previously seen him warbling “Silver Wing” by Merle Haggard before a sparse audience, so his guitar strumming is no surprise) as she lounges on her bed, feet kicked up in the air behind her. She watches as he struggles to find the right lyrics to build the song and then asks for the guitar and begins to effortlessly develop a song right there from what Beau had made. It’s a moment that reveals not only who these two are but what their passion is.
We learn that she is six-time Grammy winner, Kelly Canter, a contemporary country-pop star and alcoholic, who is there to try to come to deal with her demons.  Specifically a recent tragedy that affected her and her controlling manager, James (Tim McGraw), who also happens to be her husband. This scene is cut short by James, who is there to pluck Kelly out of rehab a month early. He thinks putting her back on the road for a publicized comeback tour will snap her back into shape. Clearly, he doesn’t know how rehab works. He just wants things the way they used to be and is immediately suspicious about the noticeable connection between Beau and Kelly.
In no time all three of them are awkwardly touring through the Bible belt, trying not to let what is unspoken ruin Kelly’s return. Along for the ride is “country Barbie” and Carrie Underwood wanna-be, Chiles (Leighton Meester, of “Gossip Girl” fame), who will be the opening act along with a reluctant Beau. Big-eyed and stricken with insecurities, Chiles relies on the adoration of others while dreaming of stardom (even though she has no clue who Townes Van Zandt is). James also has Beau slated as opening act but is more concerned that play watchdog and the booze away from Kelly. That not happening is as predictable as everything you just read.
We could stop the movie here and you’d know that what will come are regurgitated clichés from previous country western falling star movies. There’s disastrous live performances that are inserted around drunken outbursts and confessions. Audiences that show up for to see Kelly reclaim the person she was are left to embrace her opening acts. Beau and Chiles gain popularity as they default to love on tour that is void of chemistry. It all goes through stereotypical made-for-cable motions that feel forced and uneven amid the requisite song montages that will sell soundtracks at Wal-Mart.  
The only other scene that breaks formula and shows another brief glimpse of real people, is one in which Kelly agrees to visit a young boy for the Make-a-Wish foundation. Sure it’s a scene that’s designed to tug on our heartstrings, with the boy, sick with leukemia, being a huge fan of Kelly. At least we get to see Kelly genuinely laugh and smile, as she embraces the opportunity to make this boy happy by playing a song for his class. James is there and we get to see a moment where the scarred couple might possible give each other a change to reconnect.
But that’s not this movie. Feste would rather keep the tone on a dour downer which permeates through rusty pick-up trucks and waving U.S. flags. It’s all been done before and been done better. Paltrow has her moments and she can sing but the material has nothing else for her to do except cry, drink, and freak out. It becomes more irritating than it does heartbreaking.


This is a situation where it’s difficult to determine who’s at fault for this country-fried train wreck. Is the broadly stroked script solely to blame or could the actors have actually made something out of it. Hedlund isn’t as stiff as he was in “TRON: Legacy” but his low-mumbling leaves his best scenes behind the mic. Ultimately though, he is present to provide some down-home beefcake. Colin Ferrell did a better job in last year’s “Crazy Heart”. Meester couldn’t do anything to win me over. She is all stares and smiles with nothing underneath. I did feel the awkwardness from her character but after a while I began to wonder if it was because she couldn’t act. The last role I liked McGraw in was in “Friday Night Lights” and I was hoping to see some of what he had going on there again here, but his role turned out to be the most stereotypical when it could’ve been so much more.
So, it’s left to Paltrow to save this movie and she doesn’t. She does her best though as she lashes out wildly in a series of tears and scowls. On stage, she does have the presence of someone who would be embraced as a country star but the backstage drama is so rife with clichés. Nothing new comes through her hollow, mascara-stained face. Still, there will be plenty of interviews with Paltrow praising her performance in a way the media continuously fawns over her. It’s inevitable.
What we have here is a bunch of handsome and pretty actors painting-by-numbers with a confused and lazy script. It’s sad too, seeing as how each character has the potential to offer something a little more unique. The characterization is as off-putting as the movie poster’s crappy photoshop. At least the song-writing and music is enjoyable enough, but when actors go country we expect them to hit the right notes, not just the music. Regardless, there is a built-in audience for this genre and they will flock to this and will likely help the film make its money back.

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