Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Genre: Drama, Romance
Opens locally Friday, January 7th, 2011, Rated PG-13
Run Time: 1 hour, 57 minutes
Starring: Gwyneth Paltrow, Tim McGraw, Garrett Hedlund, Leighton Meester
Written & Directed by Shana Feste (The Greatest)
"Country Strong" will seemingly only appeal to those open-minded enough to give country music a chance...sorry to sound snobbish, but if you describe yourself as liking all music "except country", well, you just don't know what music is all about. Country music, at it's soul, is the most cleverly written, heartfelt and relatable of all music genres, even if you don't realize that it is. Few other genres tell a story, or paint more vivid mental pictures quite like country. In this film, country music and all of it's cliched themes are present, and it's likely to only be seen by those who have already accepted country music into their lives. But just like a good country song, "Country Strong" is a surprisingly touching, somewhat depressing love story that unfolds in a steady rhythm...that's OK though, because the spirit of the thing will have you hanging on every word, even if you are able to predict the occassional beat.
The Plot. Gwyneth Paltrow is famous country star Kelly Canter, who we see at the beginning of the film in rehab. She had a tragedy befall her on a recent concert tour, one of her own making, that has damaged her career and herself. While in rehab, she befriends Beau (Hedlund), who is a male caretaker at the clinic, and also a budding country musician. The two find time to strum tunes together, which doesn't go over too well with Kelly's husband and manager James, played by real-life country super-star Tim McGraw. James and Kelly once shared a real love, but it seems now that James is more manager and less husband to Kelly. He pulls her out of rehab to put her on a comeback tour way ahead of schedule, and she insists that Beau come along as an opening act. James also discovers the beautiful young Chiles Stanton (Meester), who has talent but lacks the confidence to let loose on stage. The movie is a journey that begins at Point A and ends at Point B, but the route taken may surprise you. It is a tale of fame and love, and it questions if both can exist in the same space.
Country Strong Performances. Country star David Allen Coe once famously wrote that one of his songs couldn't possibly be the perfect country song, because it didn't include references to mama, trains, trucks, prison, or gettin' drunk. Of course, he is referring to many of the cliches associated with country & western music. Many of these cliches are present in this film and it's characters, but incredible performances and believable choices from the characters help the movie rise above. Not only does Paltrow give a great performance, but it is the other 3 leads that truly sell the film. Tim McGraw may not be Marlon Brando, but this is by far his best performance, perfectly cast but playing against type as the unlikeable husband James. Leighton Meester is known best for the TV show Gossip Girl, but she too gives a great performance as the innocent new star-in-the-making. But most of all, the entire movie is held together by Garrett Hedlund as Beau...had this movie not been released in the award-dead-zone that is January, he may have been in serious consideration. He is both charming and powerful in his role as the cowboy hero...I had to do a double-take when I realized this was the same actor who recently starred in Tron: Legacy...Country Strong shows that this kid can be a serious leading man, if given the right material.
Songs of the South. And of course, the movie is chock-full of country music, and many original songs sung by the actors themselves. The songs are not just shoe-horned into the film...and there are some great, memorable songs....and they are used in ways that reminded me of a classic animated Disney film, where each song defines the characters, and are vital to the story and it's themes. Ironically, my least favorite song in the film is "Coming Home", which is the climactic number performed near the end. While Paltrow shows she is also a gifted singer, it is again Garrett Hedlund and Leighton Meester who steal the stage.
Country Love Song. So put the music and some of the country-cliches aside, the film works best as it creates love-triangles that shift and twist as the movie develops. At first we think the movie will center around Paltrow's Kelly, but halfway through the film, she is such a tragic and sad mess that I found myself annoyed when she would return into the fold. Beau wants to love her but she's a married woman...and he's too much of a southern gentleman to do much about it. He instead shifts his interest to the young Chiles Stanton, who he finds isn't the beauty queen diva he originally thought. We understand why he would shift gears...Paltrow is such a raging mess that married or unmarried, she would be tough to love. We even start to understand why her manager/husband McGraw has turned cold...
...that is until we get the best scene in the movie, a scene that really ties it all together. Kelly Canter, as part of her image makeover, is asked to make an appearance with some "Make A Wish" children. She makes more than an appearance...she opens up her heart and connects with a young child...and in doing so reconnects with her own youthful spirit. McGraw, seeing his wife in this unfamiliar state, reconnects with her as well...if only for a moment. This tear-jerking scene turns hopelessly sad as we see a fleeting feeling leave a couple that once knew love, but somehow lost it along the way. This scene puts Kelly front and center in the movie, and makes us root for her to overcome her demons. Any country music lover should know though, how the story usually ends.
Encore. So despite some unevenness and some underdeveloped country-cliches, "Country Strong" is what it is...a strong film dealing with the dark side of fame and love set in the world of country music. Like a great country song, it may not be for everyone. But for those willing to give it a chance you can't help but get lost in the music.
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