There are some lovely songs, and a handful of great ideas, just dying to bust out of “Country Strong,” but the cream gravy that coats every corner of this chicken-fried “Valley of the Dolls” smothers almost everything it can. This perils-of-fame melodrama wants to be so many things that it winds up succeeding at none of them.
Gwyneth Paltrow plays wildly against type as Kelly Canter, a Grammy-winning country superstar who begins the film in rehab, having tumbled ten feet off a stage in Dallas while drunk – and pregnant – the year before. She’s grown intimate with orderly Beau (Garrett Hedlund of “Tron Legacy”), who’s pursuing a music career of his own, but Kelly’s rehab is cut short by her taskmaster manager-husband James (Tim McGraw), who yanks her out of treatment early so she can stage a comeback tour.
Kelly wants Beau to be her opening act; James has his eye on Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester), a one-time beauty queen breaking into country music. Chiles freezes up onstage, only to be rescued by Beau, so the two of them wind up hitting the road with the exceedingly fragile Kelly.
“Country Strong” works best when dealing with the dynamics of this foursome on the road – Kelly wants to save her marriage to James but adores Beau, Beau understands Kelly but finds himself falling for Chiles, Chiles is attracted to Beau but flirts with James to better her career, and so on. But since all of these people seem prepared, at various stages, to put work in front of everything else, it’s hard to ultimately give a damn who’s going to wind up with whom.
This is ostensibly Paltrow’s show, but she disappears offstage for significant chunks of the movie while we deal with the lives and ambitions of Beau and Chiles, and that winds up being not such a bad thing. Paltrow understands the show-biz side of the character – the scene where Kelly tells Chiles everything a young singer should know is a highlight, and she has a lovely moment performing for a young fan with leukemia – but there are places when her attempts at being a good-ol’-gal play like Grace Kelly trying to portray Ma Kettle. Paltrow’s a talented actress, but I didn’t buy her singing on a bar for Hell’s Angels or drunkenly screaming while wearing panties, a bra, and smeared mascara.
(As for her would-be Oscar-clip moment, where Kelly has a meltdown onstage – it’s not even in the same ballpark as the more memorable scenes performed by Ronee Blakely and Sissy Spacek in “Nashville” and “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” respectively.)
If “Country Strong” turns out to be anyone’s star vehicle, it’s Hedlund’s – he does his own singing (and the songs themselves are certainly one of the film’s strong points), and he demonstrates the kind of raw sexuality and trashy charisma that made Brad Pitt a star in “Thelma & Louise.” It’s not inconceivable that this film could give Hedlund’s career a similar boost.
Meester’s pipes are pretty impressive as well, and that not-quite-formed quality she so often brings as an actress suits her perfectly here, playing a singer with the drive to succeed but lacking the polish and the focus that will conceivably make her a star. While McGraw ostensibly knows this world better than anyone else in the cast – when Kelly asks James, “Am I talented?” one imagines McGraw having this conversation with his real-life blonde country-singing wife – he winds up as the most cipher-like of the leads.
Most of the flaws of “Country Strong” land squarely on the screenplay, by director Shana Feste (“The Greatest”), which meanders endlessly. Why make such a big deal, for instance, about Chiles stealing the song “Coming Home” from Kelly if Kelly’s going to sing it at the climactic concert anyway? Why set up the anonymous “baby killer” hate mail at the beginning of the movie if it’s never going to be brought up again? And that’s without mentioning the film’s clunkiest metaphor, involving a wounded bird that Kelly rescued while in rehab, and who keeps turning up, in its cigar box, at strategic moments throughout.
“Country Strong” has moments that feel heartfelt and genuine, but the final result winds up pitchy and off-key.
"Country Strong" is now playing in limited release. It opens nationwide on Jan. 7.
Duralde is the author of “Have Yourself a Movie Little Christmas" available on Amazon.com and the DVD Editor of Movieline. He's also written for MSNBC and the Rotten Tomatoes Show.