Gwyneth Paltrow as Kelly Canter
Tim McGraw as James Canter
Garrett Hedlund as Beau Hutton
Leighton Meester as Chiles Stanton
Marshall Chapman as Winnie
Jeremy Childs as JJ
J.D. Parker as Joe
Directed by Shana Feste
Films about singers, films about any artist, usually end up one of two ways. In the first, the artist in question discovers through a new found romance or relationship the inspiration they need to begin (or restart) their artistic career and produce something profound and moving. Unfortunately, this usually comes with the lesson that the relationship which initiated the artist’s ascent paradoxically cannot be sustained when art becomes the central focus over a person’s life, and thus must be given up. The price to be paid and all of that. The second version is exactly the same as the first, except our hero chooses love at the end instead. As melodrama goes that’s not too bad, but repetition breeds contempt and that plot has been repeated a lot.
“Country Strong” is trying extremely hard to avoid those pitfalls by focusing its attention on well-rounded, three-dimensional characters trying to deal with the melodramatic crap they’ve been thrust into. It’s not always successful, but the fact that it’s trying anything different at all is gratifying enough though it still has its faults.
On the face of it, writer-director Shana Feste’s film looks like one of these typical melodramas. Following a stint in rehab, country super star Kelly Canter (Gwyneth Paltrow) is back on the road trying to reclaim her throne, with the help of a young, aw-shucks country singer with real song writing talent (Garrett Hedlund). But the music business being what it is, there’s always someone newer and younger waiting to steal the spotlight, in this case a young beauty queen with terminal stage fright (Leighton Meester).
Some of it is typical behind-the-curtain politicking and business, with a fair helping of drug dependency, for your soap opera pleasure. On that level it works about as well as any of these things do, depending entirely on what your melodrama tolerance level is.
Where Feste does go above and beyond are her characters. They each have their good and bad sides and none are either innocent or villainous caricatures in the way Hollywood generally prefers these things. The closest you get to that is Kelly’s husband and manager (Tim McGraw), who is both forcing her back on the road, despite realizing she’s not ready, and finding the next Kelly (and her likely replacement) at the same time. Initially cold and self-serving, like most of the characters in the film, he refuses to stay just a stereotype, developing into a genuinely sympathetic person who must continue with his job but just can’t get over the pain Kelly’s antics have caused him, particularly the death of their unborn child.
Kelly herself is the kind of narcissistic mess that these kinds of films love to paint big stars as, and who are often all too recognizable in the various meltdowns visible each week on the cover of ‘People.’ Though often charming and winsome, Kelly is also completely capable of hypocritically carrying on an affair with Beau while accusing her husband of cheating on her with his new starlet. She’s obviously used to getting her own way, a reality that at least partially sent her down the self-destructive path she’s headed down.
And Paltrow is actually excellent in the role, partly because Feste has wisely decided against any large, lurching moments in order to keep emotional responses real. Kelly has breakdowns but she never trashes a hotel room while screaming at everyone around or anything similarly over the top.
However, that same impulse to realism provides a mixed bag from most of the other actors. McGraw is sorely miscast as a typical entertainment manager with his eye constantly on the prize rather than his wife’s emotional well-being. As an actor he’s still stuck mostly being Tim McGraw, and as a person he cannot realistically portray the level cynicism needed to make that sort of thing stick.
Garrett Hedlund, on the other hand, may be the best he’s ever been. That may be damning with faint praise but it is still none the less true. A lot of that is because, despite Paltrow’s prominence, the film is really about Beau and answering the question is it truly a good thing to be able to do what you love for a living, or will that just kill the very thing that you love?
It takes a little while for “Country Strong” to make up its mind that that’s what it wants to be about, and it takes even longer for it to figure out how to get there as the conclusion drags on and on, searching for a point.
Despite strong writing and some great singing from its cast, “Country Strong” is ultimately muddled and not entirely sure how best to make use of its ensemble. Feste’s sophomore effort keeps its eye firmly focused on character, and that is encouraging, she just can’t quite figure out what to do with them. There’s a lot of promise in the films faults, however, and unlike most country songs themselves, it gives me actual hope for the future.