“Country Strong” – Lady Drinks the Booze

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By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic

Shana Feste’s “Country Strong,” starring Gwyneth Paltrow as the latest entertainer to suffer the clichéd immiscibility of love and fame, asks the question: Is there anyone left in Hollywood who has not yet played a country western singer?  While Miss Paltrow’s go at it lends a genre challenging uniqueness, it’s still the same ole achy breaky heartbreak.

Hampered by stereotypes and a connect-the-dots screenplay, Paltrow’s nonetheless astute portrayal suggests that a total revamp would be in order. At least it would make for a more honest, if not more entertaining, film. Engaging only in a soap opera sort of way, there’s always the feeling that surely something better exists just around the next corner.

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But it doesn’t, and “Country Strong” is fated to plod along in hobble mode. A few new shiny faces and a handful of fairly pleasing songs are poor substitutes for a good screenplay. As it stands, this tired tale makes banal comparisons of the old and the new, the decadent and the hopeful. Someone ought to write a country western song about it.

Which is what Garrett Hedlund’s Beau Hutton ostensibly aspires to do as the young, unspoiled iconoclast who says he doesn’t care about success. It’s about the music, dude. This is why the heartthrob has recently won the attentions and affections of Paltrow’s very troubled superstar, Kelly Canter. Of course they meet in a rehabilitation center.

Kelly was the patient. Beau was supporting his nighttime musical career as an orderly. But when beleaguered hubby and manager James Canter, played by Tim McGraw, comes to take his alcoholic wife back on the road and into the glaring spotlight, she introduces the handsome soul mate as her sponsor. Weary-eyed, James issues an mm-hmm look.

But we figure the stoical spouse isn’t exactly pure of heart, either. Witness the adoring looks he heaps on Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester), the former beauty queen and female equivalent of up-and-coming Beau. It could be she just reminds him of happier times, before celebrity and booze tarnished the star he has so lovingly nurtured.

Believe that and I can also sell you a bridge that crosses the Tallahatchie. In any case, while not delivered in an especially sensual way, the morality is curious. Call me a fuddy-duddy, but it’s all a tad tawdry, the indiscretions feebly cloaked in farfetched rationalizations about love, art and whatever else might make for a good second stanza.

Borrowing from the sociology Robert Altman so expertly etched in “Nashville” (1975), writer-director Feste adds nothing to the milieu. There are the one-night stands, the camaraderie that comes of traveling by bus, an allegiance to the down home point of view, and a non-stop self-consciousness that feels the need for autobiographical analysis.

But if you give Paltrow’s prima donna a second look, you realize she interestingly deviates from the songstress generally at the center of said template. We suspect that while the bright lights may have complicated matters, her neuroses were tormenting her since way back in Okefenokee, long before Kelly Canter rose to country music fame.

So what of it? Sure, my clinical diagnosis might be more intriguing than the rags-to-ruins rehash we get. But the producers doubtlessly would be loath to revisit a psychological drama of the sort that hasn’t held favor with audiences since the mid 1950s. You know: hushed tones, antiseptic rooms, somber looks and the ever-lurking threat of lobotomy.

Fact is, this hackneyed tale is merely a platform for numerous tunes and the neophytic actors that sing them. Some of it is OK. And anyway, aside from some eerie screeching to note hyperbole and the improvisational, staccato jazz that attacks the nerve synapses, the aforementioned mental shtick hardly lends itself to musical accompaniment.

Both Miss Meester and Mr. Hedlund have pleasant enough voices, and their duet rendition of “Give in to Me” exudes a fittingly hokey chemistry. But the pièce de résistance is reserved for Gwyneth’s Kelly who, mustering the greatest stage courage since Judy Garland first embodied la chanteuse terrible, sings “Coming Home.”

Too bad Ms. Feste didn’t have an inclination to hum the scenery. One panoramic view through the open doors of a freight car whilst Kelly and Beau take a brief hiatus from stardom’s obligatory rigors hints at lost potential. Though travelogue shots of the South couldn’t make up for the trite dialogue, at least we’d have some pretty pictures to look at.

This is all too sad and fatalistic considering the few grim platitudes we receive in return for our indulgence. While perhaps viable as a palate cleanser between headier offerings at the Cineplex, “Country Strong” is otherwise too weak for you to consider budging the old pickup from that great parking space outside the honky-tonk.

“Country Strong,” rated PG-13, is a Screen Gems release directed by Shana Feste and stars Gwyneth Paltrow, Garrett Hedlund and Leighton Meester. Running time: 112 minutes


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