Saturday, March 19, 2011

Country Strong Movie Review: Country Strong, Movie Weak

There is simply so much wrong with Shana Feste’s Country Strong, it’s really hard to know where to begin. It wants so hard to be the next Tender Mercies but completely lacks the story, the heart, the writing, the directing, the central lead performance and the earned trust of the audience. This is a movie that has absolutely no shame about exploiting the character of a child with cancer to stage one last moment of hope and reconciliation between the protagonist and her husband. It is the mark of a weak director who needs to rely on such easy bait to win audience sympathy. I wonder if Feste has any experience whatsoever with even witnessing, let alone being intimate with, alcoholism. I ask myself because here is a screenplay that doesn’t seem to have a clue about addiction and the ways it insidiously manifests itself and slowly tears apart everyone around the afflicted person.

Gwyneth Paltrow plays country music star Kelly Canter. When we meet her she’s in a rehab clinic getting very friendly with an up-and-coming country music songwriter named Beau Hutton (Garrett Hedlund). When her husband and manager James (Tim McGraw) shows up to collect her (early) from rehab, she says that Beau is her sponsor. James doesn’t hesitate to distrust Beau, and with good reason, because it turns out she’s been having an affair with him.

 Kelly entered the clinic after an incident during a show in Dallas. Barely veiled references are made in a lame attempt to shroud the story in a little bit of mystery. James has scheduled a series of new shows in Texas, including a big one in Dallas. Several people wonder if the fans there will accept her back after what she did. She shares an intimate moment while lying in bed with James and says they should talk about “what happened” sometime. In the green room before a show she opens a box from a fan to find a defaced baby doll made to look dead.

After that the next time we see her she’s flailing around drunk with a half empty vodka bottle in her hand. This kind of thing is a lazy screenwriter’s shorthand for an excuse to fall off the wagon. This is like the Cliff’s Notes version of alcoholism and Paltrow, for all her charm and beauty as an actress, doesn’t quite seem up to the challenge of playing the part. I should not that the problem is due in large part to a severely underwritten and painfully non-compelling character.

Also on the road as the opening acts for Kelly’s gigs are Beau and a young country ingénue named Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester). She’s a pretty young thang, a former beauty queen who performs bubble gum pop country music. Kelly requested that Beau perform as the opening act, but it was James who insisted on Chiles. We know why Kelly wanted Beau along for the ride, but what was James’ motivation for asking Chiles? Kelly is afflicted by some doubt as to the fidelity of her husband.

Beau and Chiles maintain a cute sort of adolescent will they or won’t they relationship and friendship. She eyes him longingly; he hurts her feelings like a kid who doesn’t know how to handle his first crush. When she chokes on stage in a bar, he’s there with his guitar to give her confidence and bail her out of an embarrassing moment.

The acting is just about what’s minimally required to sustain a film of such limited magnitude. I’ve already talked about Paltrow, who did little more than phone in her performance. McGraw brings the same affable and easy-going charm to James, easily the most likable and sympathetic character, that he brought to The Blind Side. Hedlund turns on the rough and gruff to play Beau as a true artist – the guy who is happy to play cheap bars if it means he can do his music his way. Meester is the only bright and cheery respite in the film. She’s got enough charisma and talent to become a real movie star, although she seems to be moving into the realm of pop music.

A lot of the music in the film is, to the best of my knowledge, original and written for the film. I’m not a big fan of country music and I know little about it, but a lot of the songs here sound to me like country music crossover songs designed to appeal to more than just a niche audience. That’s definitely true for both the title track, performed by Paltrow on the soundtrack and by Kelly on stage in Dallas with bright lights and gigantic American flags hanging behind her, and “Coming Home” which was nominated for an Original Song Oscar this year.

“Coming Home” is supposed to be like “The Weary Kind” from Crazy Heart – a new song written for new talent, but would be perfect for the old star. The difference is that Jeff Bridges and a good screenplay made us believe that song was written for his character. Kelly wants “Coming Home” for herself and is dismayed when she catches Chiles recording it in the studio, the producer having given it to someone who is more likely to become a bankable star. Maybe I missed something, but if I didn’t this is a pretty gaping hole, but Kelly goes ahead and performs the song at her Dallas concert without ever having had a conversation about her performing it. It seems to me this would have been a pretty important, if completely formulaic device to have included in the film – a scene in which her producer relents and gives her the rights to a song that could put her back on top. Instead she just comes out blasting it in front of thousands of people apparently without ever having rehearsed it with her band.

The completely mismanaged story arc comes to a screeching halt with a dubious and unearned ending. I think I literally did a double take. It’s an ending that isn’t arrived at, but rather tossed in. It’s a final development that comes out of nowhere and is in some ways even more shameless than throwing in the kid with leukemia earlier.

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