I walked out of Country Strong having a hard time deciding whether I liked it or not. The acting and soundtrack are enjoyable even for those who are not die hard fans of country music, but the sub-par and disorganized writing makes the film difficult to enjoy or follow.
Country Strong felt like a Glee country music special with an especially random storyline and a drunk and strung-out Mrs. Shuester. Gwyneth Paltrow plays Kelly Cantor, a fictional six-time Grammy-winning country singer who overdosed on drugs and alcohol a year ago at a Dallas concert gig. She almost lost her career and miscarried her five-month-old baby. A year later, her husband, who also happens to be her manager, pulls her out of drug rehab one month early for a comeback tour. While in rehab Kelly falls in love with a rising country star named Beau. Beau later falls in love with Chiles Stanton, a beauty pageant winner turned country singer who still chokes at the sight of an audience, but obviously has talent. Every character is rather flat and one dimensional, and the entangled love affairs never really get resolved. It wasn’t clear when or why Beau abandoned Kelly for Chiles, and Kelly’s attitude towards Chiles changes so erratically and dramatically from scene to scene that I couldn’t help wonder if she’s secretly relapsing behind her husband’s back. The film was shot in reverse order, and its lack of cohesiveness, continuity and an overall vision is extremely distracting. And just to mess with your head, while Leighton Meester (Chiles Stanton), Gwyneth Paltrow and Garret Hedlund from Tron (Beau) have to sing many songs, Grammy-winning country singer Tim McGraw — who plays Cantor’s husband — is the only character who doesn’t sing.
Gwyneth Paltrow is obviously shooting for an Oscar worthy performance á la Reese Witherspoon in Walk the Line. She definitely has a few magical moments when her infectious and emotional performance overpowers the dreadful screenwriting. In a role that’s a long way from Paltrow’s usual selection of 14th and 19th century literary heroines or the buttoned up Iron Man assistant, Paltrow’s unlikely portrayal of Kelly Cantor is believable and heartfelt. There’s a scene where Kelly visits a young cancer patient named Travis in order to salvage her reputation with some philanthropic work. She improvises a song called “Travis” and picks up the boy to dance with him; her gentle voice and simple song clearly and piercingly express a momentary motherly joy, as well as the crippling sorrow of losing her child. It almost made me cry. Leighton Meester of Gossip Girl puts on an endearing performance as yet another insecure teenage beauty queen with a weird first name. Meester also has great on-screen chemistry with Garret Hedlund, who impressively establishes himself as a rising star with his role as Beau.
The best part of the film is probably the soundtrack. Marrying the lead singer of Coldplay obviously paid off because Gwyneth Paltrow’s singing is surprisingly palatable. Her voice is incomparable to songbirds like Carrie Underwood, but she sings with genuine emotions more engrossing than just about any other aspect of the film. Meester’s charming voice is infinitely more suitable for country than her usual auto-tunage, and Hedlund is great too. Perhaps McGraw wasn’t allowed to sing because he would overshadow everyone else posing as singers?
Despite the confusion, the movie eases the untrained ear into the world of country music. It’s method doesn’t make sense, but you might find yourself with a new impression of country.