Review: 'Country Strong' hits all the wrong notes

Country Strong is a country music melodrama, but I'm not sure which country. Certainly not one with a Deep South region where songs come from the heart, not radio trending surveys, and where folks know the smell of manure means don't step in it.

Gwyneth Paltrow jumped into Country Strong with both feet, obviously believing she could lasso a second Academy Award the way Jeff Bridges earned his first. Just play a country star on the skids in a movie sneaking into the chase when people are tiring of the early frontrunners. What Paltrow forgot was to bring along a script as genuine as the music it exploits and any wrinkles that we haven't seen before.

Writer-director Shana Feste seems to have watched the 1975 classic Nashville often, yet never understood that the late, great Robert Altman was being sarcastic.

Paltrow's character, a concert queen named Kelly Canter, is a rewrite of Nashville's pitiful Barbara Jean, down to her too-early release from rehab on the urging of her manager-husband James (Tim McGraw). In her first public appearance Kelly breaks down on stage like Barbara Jean; her last is equally fateful, bypassing an appropriate ending for 10 minutes as useless as a guitar pick on a piano.

Feste's screenplay is a parade of potboiler-speak and relapses, with Paltrow swinging a vodka bottle as her favorite prop, and acting slutty when she's drunk. Good thing that her rehab sponsor and lover Beau Hutton (Garrett Hedlund) is also a honky-tonk singer so he can incredibly be hired to perform on Kelly's comeback tour. That bit of disbelief is surpassed when the same happens for Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester), a "country Barbie" who freezes like bologna cake during her audition.

The "tour" is only three Texas dates, one of which Kelly skips due to a hangover. The finale is in Dallas, where months ago Kelly stamped her ticket to rehab with a drunken tumble that got her arrested and killed the baby inside her. I haven't heard the word "Dallas" spoken so ominously, so often since JFK died. Or felt so let down by the results.

Country Strong is phony at every turn, from the standing ovations Beau and Chiles receive after singing one song in their debuts, to the concert extras pretending to be entertained. McGraw could lend the movie a dose of authenticity but doesn't sing a note. He's uncomfortably placed in the heel's role, showering Kelly with such dubiously supportive lines as: "You're the toughest girl I know. You tell me you're not ready and I'll take that at face value." Gee, thanks for the confidence.

Paltrow, Hedlund and eventually Meester display fine singing voices for forgettable songs. At least in Crazy Heart the compositions were extensions of the script, filling in character flaws and empty hopes. Here, they simply intrude. The only song speaking to the moment at hand is Wet Willie's Keep on Smilin' while Kelly dances on a pool table for leering bikers. Country Strong doesn't have a crazy heart, just a lazy one.

Steve Persall can be reached at persall@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at tampabay.com/blogs/movies.

. fast facts

'Country Strong'

Grade: D

Director: Shana Feste

Cast: Gwyneth Paltrow, Tim McGraw, Garrett Hedlund, Leighton Meester, Marshall Chapman, Jeremy Childs, Lari White

Screenplay: Shana Feste

Rating: PG-13; alcohol abuse, profanity, brief sexual content

Running time: 112 minutes

Review: 'Country Strong' hits all the wrong notes 01/07/11 [Last modified: Friday, January 7, 2011 6:49pm]

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