Country Strong is a little like modern country music — odd moments of sincerity, heart and authenticity peek through the plastic, the hype and the manufactured hokum.
Moving once or twice, maudlin and mawkish the rest of the time, this Crazy Heart for Gwyneth Paltrow and launching pad for Garrett Hedlund (Tron: Legacy) and Leighton Meester (Gossip Girl) doesn't quite work out, from its honky-tonk opening to its incredibly overdone and overlong concert curtain call.
Oscar nominations? I don't think so.
Paltrow plays Kelly Canter, a burnout case just finishing a stint in rehab after a drunken onstage meltdown that caused a miscarriage. In Dallas, so everybody who talks to her and about her can use this line: "I'm sorry about Dallas."
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Her manager-husband, James Canter (Tim McGraw, in a testy, one-note turn), is anxious to get her back on the road, on the "comeback" trail. But the guitar-pickin' orderly at her rehab hospital, Beau (Hedlund), is concerned.
"Don't take somebody outta rehab before they're rehabbed," he protests. But nobody listens to him, even though fragile Kelly is plainly sweet on him and manages to get him booked as her opening act.
The second performer on the bill is a Taylor Swift-like beauty queen, prone to freezing onstage. Meester plays Chiles Stanton with a pleasant deer-in-the- headlights edge. The singer has some chops, a little talent to go with her insecurity. But it's her looks that have McGraw's James panting after her. Hedlund and Meester have the film's best scene, early on, when Beau gallantly plays his way onto a stage to save Chiles from stage fright, a little Friends in Low Places duet.
Country music permeates the background, with Last Date playing in a brittle restaurant scene between star and manager, Patsy Cline popping up to remind us who's cheating on whom, and Roger Miller as the sing-along of choice, on the road, in the van with the rest of the backup acts.
Writer-director Shana Feste's script wrestles with an odd dynamic, with the has-been and the wannabe both lusting after the hunk, insisting how kind and gentle he is, "a good man." But he's messing around with another man's wife, is rude to just about everybody he meets and blows off Chiles until she just can't live without him. Feste can't decide whom to root for and goes all operatic in an effort to resolve all this pain.
A few lines sting: Beau's "I'm just tryin' to do what's best for you," which makes Kelly spit back, "Since when?" A few scenes pay off, but it's ridiculous seeing Paltrow's Kelly in a mini-skirt, drunkenly singing along with Keep on Smiling. At least Kelly's obscenely manipulative visit to a sick child (part of her image rehab), making up a song for the little boy on the spot, works better than it should.
The stars do their own singing, and all are perfectly passable in this age of Auto-Tune. Hedlund, however, doesn't have the stage presence to go with that crooner's baritone. Paltrow never lets us forget that she's acting like a singer.
A lot of effort has been made to appeal to the country-music faithful with this picture, and McGraw gives it a little Nashville street cred. But you have to wonder, as Kelly sings about craving a "pink flamingo double-wide," if the whole lot of them aren't pulling the 10-gallon hats down over the eyes of a lot of boot-scooting fans. That's country weak.