If you’ve seen “Glee,” you know Gwyneth Paltrow can sing. And if you’ve seen “Se7en” or “Shakespeare in Love,” you know she can act. But despite Paltrow displaying her undeniable talent in both of those areas as Kelly Canter in “Country Strong” – her biggest role in years – the musical drama is profoundly unfulfilling.
The film has Paltrow singing and bouncing and shaking her groove thang all over the stage in many fantastic outfits, and yet “County Strong” will never really get your soul dancing in the way it certainly wants to. Country songs are often all about heartbreak, loss and pain, and “Country Strong” writer and director Shana Feste certainly lays that on in her tale about a singer caught in a whirlwind of alcohol and professional disappointment. But the heartbeat that the movie needs, the reason we’re supposed to care about Kelly Canter and her struggles with the media, her fans, her entourage and herself, is feeble at best.
The film begins not with Kelly but with another country singer, Beau Hutton (Garrett Hedlund), performing at a mostly empty honky-tonk joint where old couples sway along to his songs. When he’s done with the gig, he gets in his beat-up baby-blue pickup truck, changes his plaid shirt and jeans to an all-white orderly outfit and reports for work at a rehab center, where much-loved, but also much-tortured, country singer Kelly Canter (Paltrow) is staying. It’s not her first time in rehab, and Kelly seems at home in her bra, robe and diamond-encrusted cross while lounging on her bed, listening to Beau try to perfect a new song on his guitar. The gaze Beau gives her isn’t one just driven by medical concern – and when Kelly’s husband and manager James (real-life country singer Tim McGraw) shows up to talk to her, the tension is palpable.
Things only get worse when Kelly breaks the news that James is checking her out of rehab a month early so they can go on tour and attempt to get her career back on track – a year before, a drunk and five-months-pregnant Kelly toppled off a stage in Dallas, losing her and James’s baby and causing a media sensation. She’s determined to have Beau open for her on the three-date tour in Houston, Austin and Dallas, but James is gunning for beauty pageant contestant-turned-singer Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester), a gorgeous brunette who immediately inspires Kelly’s jealousy. She looks like a “young Linda Ronstadt,” says an envious Kelly, but Chiles is also a choker. When slated to play a night with Beau at a local bar, she freezes – and is only saved when he impulsively joins her onstage for a duet, sparking in James the realization that the only way Chiles can succeed on tour with Kelly is if Beau comes along, too.
So with the foursome together – Kelly desperate to reconcile with James, James keeping her at arm’s length, Beau worried about Kelly’s health and Chiles dreaming of a chance at fame – the tour begins, surrounded in fanfare and media attention. Will Kelly, just like Chiles did at the dive bar, choke onstage and prove to her fans that there’s nothing left to hope for? Can James find a way to get the old Kelly back, one who wasn’t addicted to alcohol and pills and who loved performing? Is Chiles’s beauty-queen act enough to annoy Beau so much that he quits the tour, or will they somehow find a way to tolerate each other?
You can probably guess what happens for at least some of these characters, mainly because the film’s plot twists aren’t really twists; they’re obvious enough for any audience member to spot. The film follows a very basic depression-breakdown-depression-breakdown formula for Kelly’s character, and once you realize that her sadness is really all you’re going to see, the film loses some of its appeal. It’s been reported that Feste based the character of Kelly Canter on Britney Spears, whom we all saw shave her head and seemingly become unhinged a couple years ago, but with Spears, we’d watched her grow up in the limelight. We knew about her failed relationship with Justin Timberlake. We saw her get divorced from Kevin Federline. We knew about her struggles with her weight and fading away from the spotlight. With Kelly, we get none of that – there is no background given about why she started drinking, what drove her and James apart or why she lost her passion for performance. We merely see a women who has fallen apart falling apart some more, and while that leads up to a somewhat triumphant conclusion, it certainly gets tiring.
It’s too bad for Paltrow, really, because she gives a truly strong performance here, veering between wide-eyed optimism at starting over again to bitter, alcohol-fueled rants against everyone she knows. She’s not a good wife and she’s not a very good friend, either, and it’s great to see Paltrow give her all to a character that is often detestable. Interestingly enough, none of the main four here are really pure: Beau is a ladykiller, despite his genuine concern for Kelly and desire to be out of the limelight; James cares for his wife, but for his business more; and though Chiles adores Kelly, she yearns to take her place at the top. Paltrow and Hedlund shine – Beau is the character you’ll root for the most – but McGraw and Meester, who are really only asked to frown and giggle, respectively, are often shunted to the background.
But Paltrow and Hedlund can’t save the film’s clichéd ideas on professional rebirth, the importance of love and the danger of self-destruction, all of which play out like a Vh1 “Behind the Music” special. Younger teens shouldn’t see this one, since the drug and alcohol use, talk about Kelly’s miscarriage, cursing and sexual content (there is one sex scene, though it’s mainly shot in silhouettes and darkness, and some making out in towels and in beds) will definitely be a bit much, but older teens may want to see this as a kind of warning, an inside look at the bad side of fame we all hear about. If only we knew more about what got Kelly’s character to the brink of ruin, “Country Strong” could have been unforgettable. As it is now, though, you’ll just want to watch that episode of “Glee” again.