There is a down-home comfort saturating "Country Strong," in that "somebody done somebody wrong song" way, that almost carries you through when its music-drenched melodrama gets predictable. Which is pretty much as soon as the fragile, still-in-rehab country superstar played by Gwyneth Paltrow starts talking about the baby bird she's found and is trying to save. So like, Scene 2.
Paltrow’s Kelly Canter is trying to mend her own broken wing, her drinking and on-stage meltdowns having put her career in need of rehab and recovery. The actress brings her own surprisingly sweet voice to the foot-stomping, two-stepping proceedings with such surety that if you didn’t catch her coming-out party on the Country Music Association Awards last month (or on “Glee,” or missed “Duets” in 2000 with Paltrow singing and her late dad, Bruce, directing), you’ll probably find yourself saying, “Wow, that girl can sing.”
As it happens, that is not necessarily the take-away you want from a movie, even one about the roughhouse country music industry, though it always becomes a topic when actors take on these roles.
It’s a very tough arena that writer/director Shana Feste has chosen to play in, given such classic movies and classic performances as Sissy Spacek in “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” Robert Duvall in “Tender Mercies,” Jessica Lange in “Sweet Dreams,” Reese Witherspoon in “Walk the Line” and Jeff Bridges in last year’s “Crazy Heart.” The roles won Oscars for all but Lange, who did get a nomination.
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When the starting point is a world in which even the toughest guys wear their hearts on their sleeves, the trick for filmmakers is how to walk the line without getting stuck in the muck, and that is a problem the filmmaker hasn’t yet figured out.
“Country Strong” is Feste’s second film and she infuses it with an earnestness that swings between too too much and appealing, the same earnestness that swamped her filmmaker debut last year with “The Greatest.” But this time, in the more nuanced moments (and there are some), she has a way with dialogue that could turn her into a force if she can ever get the balance right and send the obvious packing.
The story is an all-too-familiar one, that deadly cocktail of too much fame and too much drink for someone who’s lost touch with who they really are. The film opens with Kelly about to trade rehab for the road again. Her husband-manager James, played by real-life country music superstar Tim McGraw and about the only one in the movie who doesn’t sing, is sure she’s ready. Besides, James has a double shot in mind: jump-starting Kelly’s stalled career while launching another, a sassy bit of hot sauce just off the beauty pageant circuit named Chiles Stanton (“Gossip Girl’s” Leighton Meester).
Meanwhile, Kelly’s sober buddy at the facility, an attentive singer-songwriting hunk named Beau (Garrett Hedlund) with bedroom eyes and talent – a lethal cocktail in its own right – is not so sure. With that, the filmmaker has stacked the deck with four combustible egos primed to be manipulated by ambition, need, love, betrayal and backsliding, so you know going in there’s no way anyone is going to walk away unscathed from the emotional wreckage that is sure to come.
Director of photography John Bailey opens things up, pouring a lot of light into all the dark places Feste has created. Although the film unfolds in and around Dallas, shooting it on location in Nashville has served to give the look a rock-solid foundation that Bailey takes full advantage of. The music (in the hands of Michael Brook and music supervisor Randall Poster) that runs through the production is a blend of old standards from the Merle Haggard and Hank Williams set, and the new country of Hayes Carll (check out his “Bad Liver and a Broken Heart” sometime). Whether in dive bars with bare stages or big-hair blow-outs, staging the performances is where the filmmaker finds her comfort zone.
What helps elevate “Country Strong” when the music stops is the strength of the performances. Paltrow is an actress who slips into roles as if they were old sweats, creating a kind of organic fit whether it’s the light loveliness of her theater romantic in “Shakespeare in Love” or her darkly used down-market girl in “Two Lovers.” As Kelly, she brings a rural authenticity and human touch that are never better than when she plays to a Make-a-Wish kid named Travis.
It’s not easy to play opposite that, but McGraw does a credible job. He is such an appealing guy on screen, working an easy charm in a way that seems so effortless, it’s turning him into Hollywood’s good old boy of choice (see “The Blind Side”). But the scene stealer is the Minnesota farm boy, Hedlund, who took up the guitar for the film and despite an acting hot streak that includes “Tron: Legacy,” actually could quit his day job. His scruffy Hank Williams-style baritone and kickback charisma on stage makes Beau irresistible to more than just Kelly. For the most part, Hedlund comes off as a natural, never in a hurry, relying on instinct to know when and how to play the hand he’s been dealt.
Feste has the right instincts too, she just doesn’t have the ease yet. The voice in “Country Strong,” though unsteady still, is distinctive enough, especially on the emotional notes, that you hope she figures out how to get it right.
Cast: Gwyneth Paltrow, Tim McGraw, Leighton Meester, Garrett Hedlund
Director: Shana Feste
Running time: 1:52
Rating: PG-13; thematic elements involving alcohol abuse and sexual content