It's a relief when Gwyneth Paltrow's superstar bursts into soaring country song. Because that's the only time, says Kimberly Gadette, when she's not pitching fits to beat the band. Which makes the band -- and the audience -- extremely grateful.
Just before she's about to go on stage on the first leg of her comeback tour, Gwyneth Paltrow's six-time Grammy winner Kelly Canter ("Canter" as in cantor, derived from the Latin "canere" meaning "to sing" – get it?) receives an anonymous gift of a doll with the words "baby killer" scrawled across it in red ink. And she collapses on the spot. Sure, she's recently been sprung out of rehab, and is still a bit shaky. But this level of instability, exhibited by a superstar tigress who's been on top for nearly two decades, deserves a searing examination. And one that inexplicably never comes.
Country Strong? Far from it.
The film takes a quartet of actors, throws them on a muddy pink-colored tour bus and takes them, and us, on a Texas swing dance into hell. The first easy scene between Canter and Garrett Hedlund's Beau (whose role in her life seems to rotate between protégé, sponsor and sometime lover), is a promise unfulfilled. We think we're going to love this relaxed, sexy woman, lolling on her bed as she banters with Beau, her blouse half-buttoned, bra exposed, sparkling diamonds casually looped around her neck, her face devoid of make-up. Beau beams in her presence, strumming a guitar as he shares with her his latest, half-written song.
Consider this first scene an anomaly. In walks Kelly's dour husband/manager James (Tim McGraw, trying to make the best of another unexamined character), and we're off and limping. James will attempt to reinvigorate his wife's career while Kelly will cry, repeatedly, as she cradles a baby bird in a wooden box (unsubtly representing her lost 5-month old fetus). When she can't give the bird proper attention, then her tense husband will take over. And no, we're not kidding.
Enter young, ambitious Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester) a quasi-budding talent who James is hoping to groom as his wife's opening act. As a return salvo, Kelly pushes for Beau. It's Edward Albee's George and Martha, country-style, playing cat and mouse with Nick and Honey. But without a spark of clever.
Instead, writer/director Shana Feste delivers an emotionally overwrought, flatulent dip into a world not unlike a dull soap opera. The scenes consist of two-person confrontations, one after another after another. The only interlude comes by way of the characters bursting into song which, next to this tuneless pap, seems like musical manna from heaven. (Ironically, real-life country singing star Tim McGraw is once again sidelined from performing a single note, as was the case with his previous role in The Blind Side.)
And this is where Country Strong finds a modicum of its self-trumpeted strength. Paltrow exhibits a stunning vocal authority that was only hinted at ten years ago with her performance in Duets. Outfitted in fabulous stage costumes (designed by Stacey Battat), she belts out songs written by some of Nashville's best – and truthfully, we might have been happier viewing a concert film.
As for Hedlund, we get an odd cinematic coincidence, in that the fictional father and son from TRON: Legacy have each made a year-end, musical country splash. Jeff Bridges' Oscar-winning performance in last year's Crazy Heart now gets an encore of a sort from Hedlund, the actor making a remarkable transition into a credible musician. Having no prior training as a singer or guitarist, Hedlund deserves kudos for his performance (along with nods to his coaches), selling it like he's been singing for his supper at honky-tonk bars since he was first big enough to hold a guitar. He lights up the screen with an infectious smile, seemingly having the time of his life as he croons with his soulful baritone. While in TRON: Legacy he had to take a backseat to the CGI, here there's nothing to distract from his megawatt performance.
Even Meester's Chiles eventually rises to the occasion. Eventually, because the plot involves her having to work through severe stage fright – which doesn't make all that much sense, since she's a prior beauty queen and would therefore be used to an audience.
But the story's severe lack of logic is par for the course. In the third act, Kelly visits a classroom to spread some joy to a little boy dying of leukemia. She ends up romancing her husband with a slow dance (in the classroom?), and then she cries, wallowing in her own cloud of superstar misery. Her husband cries, too. Is anybody concerned about that poor, bald child in the corner?
Ultimately, Feste has created a film that is, at its heart, dishonest. Beau prefers to perform at small-town community centers attended by a handful of seniors and a stray dog rather than have his art polluted by a large stadium. See Beau. He's good. Chiles can't wait to ride her rising career all the way to the top, thrilled by the glamour and the waves of love coming straight at her. See Chiles. She's bad. On the one hand, the film celebrates the thrill of communicating one's art. On the other, we get a whining celebrity who can't survive the pain of it all, who states that "love and fame can't live in the same place." Pick a cliché and stick with it. You can't have two. There's a law.
Simply put, filmmaker Feste can't preach caution to the choir if that same choir's having a hell of a time singing its heart out.
Rating on a scale of 5 Patsy dis-in-Clines: 1.5
Release date: US: 7 January 2011; UK: 25 March 2011
Written and directed by: Shana Feste
Cast: Gwyneth Paltrow, Tim McGraw, Garrett Hedlund, Leighton Meester
Rating: US = PG-13; UK = TBD
Running time: 112 minutes