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Shana Feste presents Country Strong, a musical drama that mirrors the theme and even the release timeframe of last year’s Crazy Heart. This is not that movie. Gwyneth Paltrow blends strength and insecurity into a tall delicious drink and Garrett Hedlund is the slice of lime that brings it all together. But a good cast cannot always save a movie, and in this case it doesn’t. Feste makes a decent attempt at drama but errs tragically in the narrative, character development and pacing.
Gwyneth Paltrow stars as Kelly Canter, a country superstar with multiple Grammy Awards, platinum records, and drinking game championship rings. Actually, Kelly Canter is on the mend in rehab and about to launch a premature comeback tour across Texas. Tim McGraw plays James Canter, Kelly’s emotionally restrained husband and manager. He brings in Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester) a beauty pageant contestant with dreams of stardom as an opening act. Kelly’s rehab sponsor and honky tonk country singer Beau Hutton (Garrett Hedlund) also joins the tour to look after her and take the stage.
I had to gather myself together when I realized the same person playing Beau Hutton just debuted as Sam Flynn in Tron: Legacy. Whereas the latter showed no depth, range, or glimmer of talent, Country Strong proves Hedlund has both acting and singing chops. He disappeared into his role as the caring, conflicted, and simple singer. His opposite, on-again-off-again love interest, Chiles Stanton, is not as well performed by Leighton Meester, better known for her work on Gossip Girl. She embellishes a bit in the snooty role and is further upstaged in her portrayal of desperation and fragile insecurity by Paltrow.
Despite strong performances the actors are robbed by a poorly edited narrative and stunted characters. The central tragic character is never given a complete back story. Instead snippets are implied all the way to the end of the film without any conclusiveness. Paltrow’s Kelly is often questioned as “crazy” or “mentally ill” although there is never any clear indication she is any more than an alcoholic who had a miscarriage. She wants her husband to love her and to forget about the accidental death of their baby. Somehow none of this induced the type of compassion it should have given she is falling down drunk and crying onstage. This makes the finale all the more troubling.
The character motivations are confusing. The actions taken in this love quadrangle have little chemistry and even less basis in reality. There is an attempt at conflict and tension between Beau and Chiles that is more befitting of third graders. Kelly’s jealousy of the young starlet is outlandish considering the solid reservation of her husband James (Tim McGraw). It is more believable when Kelly carelessly rebukes the teen beauty queen letting her know they are not friends.
A bright spot in the whole affair is the music. Hedlund and Paltrow are both believable as singers and performers. Beau is just a good ole boy who wants to sing in crappy bars and chicken shacks. He sings and writes from his heart. Kelly is an artist and spontaneous writer with a heart for the stage and her fans. It shines through in a give-em-all-you-got show featuring the back-to-back musical talents of Hedlund, Meester, and Paltrow. If only as much effort that went into the soundtrack went into the editing this might have been a good movie.
Country Strong is a weak story propped on the back of strong performances worthy of better. This is the sort of motion picture that could have been good if edited properly to fully engage the emotion and drama of its story and characters. But a film can only be graded by the final product placed on the reel and this was a poor effort by the writer and director.
Written and Directed by Shana Feste
Starring: Gwyneth Paltrow, Tim McGraw, Garrett Hedlund, Leighton Meester