(by Dustin Putman
"Country Strong" is a walking, talking contradiction, a film that begins as an affectionate love letter to country music before turning right around and vehemently deriding celebrity, fame, and that very milieu upon which the bulk of its target audience no doubt supports. It's remarkably good for a while, filled to the gills with catchy, soulful tunes and a trio of transformative performances from Gwyneth Paltrow (2010's "Iron Man 2"), Garrett Hedlund (2010's "Tron: Legacy") and Leighton Meester (2010's "Date Night"). By the second hour, it starts to lose its grasp as a low-key character drama when it all of a sudden slips into sordid nighttime soap opera mode, complete with secretive love affairs, late-night booty calls in hotel rooms and on tour buses, and over-the-top bottle-swinging, mascara-running histrionics. The picture briefly seems to be recapturing the magic of the first act as the climax nears, only to dig a hole for itself that it plummets straight into with careless abandon. It's hard to tell what sort of point writer-director Shana Feste (2010's "The Greatest") was hoping to make, so filled with mixed messages, misguided plot turns, and consecutive false denouements is her film that, by the actual end, it finally comes off as nothing but an infuriating betrayal. Article continues below
Following a very public meltdown and a tragic miscarriage during a Dallas concert, five-time Grammy-winning country superstar Kelly Canter (Gwyneth Paltrow) found herself placed in a secluded rehab clinic to work out her drug addiction and mental instability. With a month yet to go, husband and manager James (Tim McGraw) shows up to whisk her away on a comeback tour starting with three dates intended to culminate with a return to the same venue where her troubles came to a head. Kelly is clearly not ready for the spotlight, but James sees things differently, antsy to put her back on top. With two up-and-comers, handsome country boy Beau Hutton (Garrett Hedlund) and beauty queen Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester), hired as Kelly's opening acts, they hit the road. Beau, working as an orderly at the rehabilitation facility and now posing as Kelly's sponsor, has already begun a relationship with her on the sly. As for Chiles, she has her eyes on Beau, but also isn't above a little flirting with James if it means potentially getting ahead in her burgeoning singing career. Then there's fragile flower Kelly, not yet over her pill-popping and vodka-swilling, whose biggest demons are the ones she must ultimately face as the critical Dallas concert draws near.
"Country Strong" is, above all, a showcase for Gwyneth Paltrow, Garrett Hedlund and Leighton Meester to show off their pipes along with their thespian talents. They are all solid singers and fully believable as country crooners at various stages in their music careers. They hold the screen with seamless magnetism and, in the cases of Hedlund and Meester, their work here should effectively serve as their breakthroughs, proof that they can handle better, meatier screen roles than what they've been given in the past. Whenever one of them is onstage doing their thing, whether it be Beau performing a cover of Merle Haggard's "Silver Wings" over the opening credits or, later, singing original song "Chances Are," Chiles reminding of Carrie Underwood with "Words I Couldn't Say," or Kelly holding the audience in the palm of her hand with the title track and "Coming Home," the film soars. Director Shana Feste also captures the country music environment and backstage happenings with flavorful authenticity, going far to prove that she knows and understands this world.
The problem is the screenplay, which muddles itself in sudsy clichés, broadly inconsistent character actions and relationship beats, and an inexcusable ending that goes wrong in about fifty different ways. There are a few emotionally true moments sprinkled throughout—a wonderful, warm sequence where Kelly surprises a child (Gabe Sipos) suffering from leukemia with a visit to his classroom, and another that depicts Kelly's unraveling in front of a concert audience that is just about as grueling and uncomfortable as a similar scene in Robert Altman's 1975 masterpiece "Nashville"—but they become more of the exception than the rule as Feste's narrative careens out of control. Kelly obviously loves James, and vice versa, but she gets to the point where she isn't above sleeping with anyone but him. The viewer knows she is sick by her erratic behavior and drunken escapades, both of which lead to unintentional laughs, but the film does not treat whatever her myriad illnesses are with any sort of depth or care. If Feste's intention was to show how fame and attention can destroy a person, then why does she, overall, present a positive picture where those around her love her and her thousands of fans forgivingly revere her? Whatever dilemmas Kelly faces in her life seem to come directly from her own careless, amazingly narcissistic doing. The romance between Beau and Chiles, the latter also shielding secrets from her past, is ridiculously underwritten and sloppily abrupt, with Beau urging Chiles the moment after they first sleep together to move with him to a California ranch and give up a career that is just starting to take off in lieu of singing at a local dive bar. The very idea is like a bad country song itself.
Most offensive is what comes next. The plot is set up in such a way that it deceptively leads one to believe it will be detailing Kelly Canter's fall and ultimate rise back from the abyss she's found herself in. Had writer-director Shana Feste carried this out, it might have been pat and conventional, but at least it would have also been well-meaning and sincere. When the bedroom antics subside now and again, "Country Strong" slowly leads Kelly down a path of experiences that inform the mistakes she's made in her past and should give her hope for the future. Heck, she even sings a self-empowering ballad called "Country Strong" during the climactic Dallas concert. Walking off the stage afterwards, the cheers from her fans blaring in the background, she passes by an admiring Chiles and says, "That's how it's done, sweetheart." What occurs past this point, I will have to tiptoe around so as not to give key developments away. Suffice it to say, the film reveals itself to be off-puttingly hypocritical and duplicitous, wading in a sea of ego-stroking country music pornography while simultaneously sending out a warning bell that fame and professional adoration are akin to Satan's spawn and everyone who faces them should go running for the hills to live with a significant other who is equally content with a life of humble means and the throwing-away of their aspirations. Without revealing the circumstances in which it's said, the movie's final line, spoken in voice-over, is nothing short of enraging, a declaration both unthinkably selfish and cowardly. It puts a pall over everything that has come before without knowing what the hell it wants to truly say. "Country Strong," as promising as it was at the onset, is one film that took a monumental wrong turn in development and pays the price with its own integrity.