Had I only seen Country Strong six days earlier I would have had to include it on my worst of 2010 list, but instead I’ve now got a jump start on the 2011 edition as this mish-mash of a country train wreck never slows down the madness. The worst part of it all is that it deals with some truly dark aspects of the human existence such as alcoholism and even a torturous epilogue to a Make a Wish scene that you can’t even laugh at it for fear of coming across cold-hearted to those around you. It’s an unfair ticket to thunder dome and it offers no escape.
Comparisons to 2009’s Oscar-winning Crazy Heart are likely to happen and in a sense they’re accurate. Both films are about drunk and down on their luck country singers on the verge of some sort of a comeback, be it personal or professional. Both also offer some decent song-writing as the songs in Country Strong are by no means as awful as the film they inhabit and the actors singing them pull it off extremely well. Where the two films diverge is in execution and script writing.
Crazy Heart for as good as it is, was mostly buoyed by a spectacular performance from Jeff Bridges. It had its share of cliche moments and played it safe for most of the time; however, it did not venture into soap opera territory or ever just completely give up. Country Strong, on the other hand, is derailed almost from the start with characters that don’t add up, are never fully developed or, in most cases, can never seem to figure out what their value to the story is.
Gwyneth Paltrow plays Kelly Canter, a Grammy-winning country singer we first meet in rehab after we’re told she fell ten feet off the stage at a Dallas concert. She was drunk and five months pregnant at the time. The child did not survive. (I told you this gets dark.)
While in rehab she strikes up a relationship with Beau (Garrett Hedlund), a young country singer in his own right, but their “getting to know you” phase comes to a quick end as Kelly’s husband/manager James (Tim McGraw) ushers her out of rehab a month early and back on the road for a three-city comeback tour.
James, for all intents and purposes, comes across as the film’s villain if there’s to be one, but it isn’t long before you realize there really isn’t much good in any of the characters in these films. There is Chiles Stanton (played by “Gossip Girl” star Leighton Meester), a country Barbie whose idols are Kelly Canter and Jesus, but she’s so naive it’s hard to find much common ground with her character either.
As the tour plays on Kelly gets drunk more than once in scenes you’d expect to see in “All My Children” rather than a legitimate big screen picture. Infidelity will occur and Bo will more than once publicly insult Chiles who decides his bad boy persona is just what she needs. What, what, what?
In the end you suddenly realize James, the person you thought you could count on as the film’s villain, turns out to be the only one that isn’t literally or figuratively screwing someone else over. And don’t get me started on the symbolic baby bird he nurses throughout the film.
Country Strong was written and directed by Shana Feste whose previous film, The Greatest, wasn’t very good either, but at least I could look back at that film and point to Michael Shannon’s performance as a highlight. All I have here are a group of songs you wouldn’t turn off if they came on the radio, and even then Feste can’t figure out how to diversify her playlist. She gives the film’s title track about 90 seconds of chorus and hammers home the Meester-Hedlund duet “Give In To Me” three times. Perhaps it was her attempt at a subliminal message, but needless to say, I wasn’t giving in.