by Tim Ross
If you listen to country music these days, you know most of the songs on the radio are often not much more than pop tunes with a twang. They’re catchy and have a beat but they often lack the depth and soul of earlier country songs by performers such as Hank Williams, Loretta Lynn and Johnny Cash.
“Country Strong,” starring Gwyneth Paltrow, comes across just like a modern country song. It’s catchy and has a nice beat, but it’s hardly Oscar material and doesn’t hold a tune to last year’s country music film, Crazy Heart.
Both are movies about a country star fighting alcohol addiction and self-doubt, but where Jeff Bridges’ character truly hit bottom and made one feel he could do something damaging to himself or others, Paltrow bounces back from drunken binges and moments of despair with surprising ease. There were moments where I wanted her character, Kelly Canter, to crash and burn just so I could watch her pick up the pieces but there were barely any pieces to pick up.
Every time Kelly stumbled emotionally, a gentle word from her husband/manager James (Tim McGraw), or beau (Garrett Hedlund) – incidentally named Beau – would perk her right back up. The highs weren’t very high and the lows not nearly low enough to add the heft this movie needed.
Kelly is a country music superstar. We meet her in rehab after a terrible accident set her on a path to alcoholism. Her sponsor, Beau, is not only handsome but a talented country singer. What a happy set of coincidences.
Hedlund inhabits Beau with a low-key ease and comfortable voice. Soon Beau and Kelly are writing their own country song as she sits in bed, apparently completely unfazed by the process of detox and the loss she endured a year before. I won’t divulge what that loss is here and it isn’t revealed until later in the movie, but Paltrow’s performance doesn’t support the reaches of sadness anyone else would feel in the same situation.
McGraw, the most talented singer in the bunch, doesn’t sing a note but he does hit some nice notes as Kelly’s loving husband who is torn between selling her like a commodity and wrestling with the pain of her slow disintegration. James drags Kelly out of rehab too early, brings Beau along for the ride at Kelly’s request and then picks up a young new singer, Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester), to round out the tour.
Does all of that sound convenient? It is, as are many plot points throughout the film.
Chiles has stage fright but James, the manager of one of country music’s most popular singers, invites her on tour. Kelly’s rehab sponsor happens to sing country music, so he hops on the tour bus too even though James suspects he and Kelly of a fling. Beau has a perfectly rusted Ford Truck and Chiles a perfectly cute voice that makes audiences roar when she gets up enough nerve to use it.
“Country Strong” is just too convenient, never rough enough around the edges and Paltrow never reaches the emotional depths that I suspect she is capable of. The score is all country but it succeeds more than the film thanks to Hedlund’s voice and the fine craftsmanship of the songs his character sings.
The film tries to be an emotional drama without quite getting there but it does make an interesting statement about the current state of country music. Where Beau sings deep, well written songs that keep him on the edge of stardom, Kelly and Chiles sing toe tapping sugary country offerings with no real craft but tons of audience appeal.
In fact, perhaps the most interesting conflict in the film is the choice between cheap fame and the deeper satisfaction of playing the music you love.
Finally, as the mini-tour winds down and Kelly suffers one minor humiliation after another, she makes a decision at the end of the film that is entirely unsupported by what happens along the way, but the final act is exactly the kind of thing you’d expect in a modern country song and it’s exactly what you get.
“Country Strong” may appeal to core lovers of that music but it won’t win any converts and it won’t win any awards.