If the idea of Gwyneth Paltrow strumming a guitar and speaking like Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side seems to you rather preposterous, then you and I are on the same page. If a title like Country Strong seems a little contrived as well, then I’d like to shake your hand. However, the aforementioned questionabilities are the least of this cookie’s problems. I wish I could say that I liked this movie, but I just can’t say it. I wanted to like it, I really did, but ultimately that’s impossible. Even though the film has some unforgivable problems, my heart goes out to it because it really was trying all the way through to be a good movie. But some films aren’t that lucky. So in the following review, I’m going to be as gentle as possible without being too kind. The film deserves a little slack.
Country Strong is a film without any knowledge of where it’s going or how it’s going to get there. It stars of all people Gwyneth Paltrow as Kelly Canter, a “big time” country singer who has just emerged from rehab after treatment for alcoholism. Before she can completely recover, her affectionate yet out-of-touch husband checks her out and arranges a comeback tour. Going along for the ride are the band of course, and two younger singers whom Kelly would like to have open her shows. These two rookies are Beau (Garrett Hedlund) and Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester). Immediately we have a problem. It’s not that Hedlund and Meester are bad (actually they’re probably the best performances in the film), it’s that their characters detract and confuse the alpha story. The movie kept wavering back and forth, trying to decide who and what it was about. Is it about Kelly Canter overcoming her alcohol addiction, or is it about a romance between two promising young musicians? Lord only knows. I’m sure we’ll all agree that indecisiveness is never a good thing in a motion picture.
So Kelly goes on tour and seemingly makes a fool out of herself everywhere she goes. At one show, she gets drunk again and quits singing in the middle of a song. At another she simply doesn’t show up at all. You would think with a title like Country Strong that the film would be about overcoming something, but Kelly isn’t really all that strong to be honest. When she comes out of rehab she’s just as flaky and liquor loving as before. Now normally I would give a film applause for breaking away from convention, but breaking from the formula isn’t always a good thing. Instead of actually breaking away from a formula, it simply pulls an anti-formula. In other words: it only does the opposite of the formula. It also suffers greatly from what seems to be underwritten, stereotypical “character bank” cut-outs walking around and saying lines that wouldn’t sound good even if they were sung in a country song. The people we see on screen and are meant to sympathize with aren’t really people with feelings and unique personalities, there just placeholders in a very muddled and wishy-washy little screenplay.
“Well,” you say, “I guess at least I can hear some decent music.” Well, not really. The original music is ordinary and the performances are really lackluster (especially the ones by Paltrow). Near the end of the film, Kelly finally delivers a semi-decent song to her audience and they go wild! In fact, the whole movie is filled with the characters complementing each other about what great songwriters they are and I was sitting there thinking, “What’s so great about it?” At one point I had to chuckle when someone called Leighton Meester’s character the ‘Next Carrie Underwood’. I don’t think so; far from it.
As for the acting: it’s fine I suppose. There’s nothing really wrong with it. Gwyneth Paltrow is terribly miscast, but she does as much with the role as she can. And Hedlund and Meester play off each other well enough. The truth is that no amount of good acting or good music or fancy cinematography could have saved this movie. The screenplay is just too dumb and simple-minded and shillyshallying. Here’s a perfect example of an unrealized project. Had the screenwriters who set about making this film really thought through their story, they would have realized that there’s way to much formula to keep it above water. 2009’s country music movie Crazy Heart was a much better film. Go buy that instead.
By the way: This review is short simply because that’s really all I can say about this movie. Too bad.
Screen Gems Presents
Cast: Gwyneth Paltrow, Tim McGraw, Garrett Hedlund, Leighton Meester, Jeremy Childs. Directed by Shana Feste
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements involving alcohol abuse and some sexual content. Release Date: 22 December 2010