Thursday, January 6, 2011


Review by Gina Muscato

Directed by Shana Feste

Starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Tim McGraw, Garrett Hedlund

Anyone who knows anything about Gwyneth Paltrow already knows she can sing. She’s done it before in movies like Duets and Infamous. And more recently, Paltrow dominated an episode of the hit TV series Glee and impressed the country music world with her performance at the CMAs. In her new movie Country Strong, Paltrow shows her singing chops once again.
In the film, Paltrow plays Kelly Canter, a self-destructive country music superstar whose drunken and disorderly conduct forces her to pause her career for rehab. Kelly’s manager/husband, James (Tim McGraw) pulls her from rehab too soon to revive her career with a comeback tour. Opening acts Beau Hutton (Garrett Hedlund), a deep-voiced singer who coincidentally was Kelly's sponsor in rehab, and Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester), an up-and-coming country vocalist/songwriter, accompany them on the tour, which is often maligned by Kelly’s affair with Hedlund and her rivalry with the younger Meester.
The film's director Shana Feste masterfully weaves the lives of these four characters together throughout the film. Kelly wants to keep her marriage to James alive, but also has a thing for Beau. Beau understands Kelly but winds up falling for Chiles. Chiles flirts with James to further her career, but falls for Beau.
Though much of the pre-buzz surrounding this film was over Paltrow's singing, she spends most of her onscreen time crying in drunken melt downs, rather than crooning. In fact, Paltrow's main vocal performance doesn't come until close to the end of the film. The film's more memorable voice is that of Hedlund, whose bass-baritone conjured up memories of Crash Test Dummies lead singer Brad Roberts' vocals on their only hit single "Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm." Hedlund, best known as the star of the 2004 film Friday Night Lights, is handsome and rugged, possessing raw sexuality and yet an undeniable vulnerability. Some critics are touting Hedlund's performance as his arrival as a leading man, noting that this movie will do for him what Thelma & Louise did for Brad Pitt. And yeah, Hedlund is that good.
Meester, meanwhile, is perfectly cast as Chiles, a fresh-faced former beauty queen longing for a music career, but has her own issues of insecurity and stage fright. McGraw also delivers a solid performance as Kelly’s emotionally-drained husband James. He portrays a believable tenderness toward Kelly in the right moments -- just enough to make him almost likable.
Paltrow, though an extremely talented actress, seems to over-act at times, particularly in her meltdown on stage that threatens the comeback tour. Her performance rebounds with scenes in which Kelly offers advice to Chiles and when Kelly visits the classroom of a little boy with leukemia -- easily two of the best scenes in the movie. Paltrow is certainly believable as a country music star, not just with her voice, but her casual southern drawl sounds spot-on.
Though, Country Strong has its flaws. It's silly to have Kelly carry around a baby bird that she found in the forest near rehab, even though it's meant to symbolize the baby she lost. Also, there's really no reason to make such a big deal about Chiles stealing the song "Coming Home" from Kelly. Kelly winds up singing it anyway.
Also, several plot points may be a little too convenient to believe, including the fact that Beau is an aspiring singer who just happens to work at the same facility where the most famous country music star in the world is rehabilitating. Of course he does. Also, it doesn't make much sense that Beau would rather perform in tiny, small town bars rather than in front of a crowd of thousands. I didn’t buy that, so I’m sure the average movie go-er won’t either.
There are some decent songs in the film, including the Hedlund/Meester duet "Give Into Me." I was hoping for a Paltrow/McGraw duet at some point in the film -- not on stage, but in bed or dressing room somewhere. Needless to say, that never happened. McGraw doesn't sing a single note throughout the film. And unfortunately, most of the songs are forgettable.
If you can push past the convenient and predictable plot points and even the cliches, you might like this one. Forgive me, but I did.

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