Directed by Shana Feste
Though it's not as catchy, Country Strong is the cinematic equivalent of Taylor Swift's megasmash "Love Story," a pure radio-pop song that enjoyed "country" crossover success merely because there's banjo in the background. The movie's country cred is just as superficial. Gwyneth Paltrow's singer Kelly Canter happens to sing country-pop, her husband is played by Tim McGraw, and she names her orphaned pet quail Loretta Lynn, but she could be any kind of singer. She's a mentally unstable substance abuser with a history of breakdowns and rehab, but director Shana Feste says she based this side of Kelly on Britney Spears.
Paltrow's trainwreck crooner is in many ways a supporting character in the shadow of two shiny, fresh-faced up-and-comers, Beau (Garrett Hedlund) and Chiles (Gossip Girl's Leighton Meester). As McGraw's James Canter mounts a post-rehab comeback tour for his wife, Beau and Chiles are brought on as openers (Beau is also providing comfort to Kelly in the form of an affair). Backstage jealousies and Kelly's return to the vodka trough lead to petty drama that's entertaining in a Real Housewives way, but has nothing to say about country music or its rich history of alcoholics, much less the human condition. Kelly's frail, neglected pet bird is asked to carry too much weight as the movie's iffy central symbol.
As the caring but manipulative manager-husband with a short fuse, McGraw is the best thing here, a passive-aggressive prick in expensive jeans. Hedlund, who looks like Jeremy Sisto but with Josh Hartnett's lower-register vapidity, calls Meester's character, an alleged former beauty queen, a "country Barbie" at one point, though the label could apply to both. When Kelly gets Chiles to open up about her poor upbringing and incarcerated parents, the fleshing out seems unnecessary, though there's some added resonance (I guess) in the fact that Meester's own parents have done jail time.
Set squarely in the present (when Kelly hints to her husband in bed, "I just got one of those Brazilian bikini waxes," he replies, "I just took an Ambien."), Country Strong fails to say anything about the world of modern country-pop. Template Crazy Heart had interesting observations on torch-passing between old and new country, as represented by Colin Farrell's Tommy Sweet, and central character Bad Blake was far more convincing as both a country legend and alcoholic than Paltrow's Kelly Canter. An outrageous late plot surprise that I won't spoil attempts to compensate for Country Strong's inborn lack of depth, but it's too much, too late.
Opens January 7