January 06, 2011

Country Strong

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A movie review by James Berardinelli



Country Strong

DRAMA/MUSICAL:

United States, 2010

U.S. Release Date:

2011-01-07

Running Length:

1:52

MPAA Classification:

PG-13 (Sexual Content, Drugs)

Theatrical Aspect Ratio:

2.35:1

Cast:

Gwyneth Paltrow, Garrett Hedlund, Tim McGraw, Leighton Meester

Director:

Shana Feste

Screenplay:

Shana Feste

Cinematography:

John Bailey

Music:

Michael Brook

U.S. Distributor:

Screen Gems

Subtitles:

none


If one was to judge Country Strong based solely on its misleading trailer, one might assume this to be a cliché-riddled Crazy Heart wannabe. And, although I will not argue that the whole cloth from which the story has been cut contains its fair share of familiar and/or overused situations, the narrative is surprisingly engaging, the character relationships contain aspects of complexity, and the ending does not give in to the temptation to be too facile. Like the country songs that form its foundation, Country Strong is a downer. While the melodrama is ladled on fast and thick at times, it is performed with sufficient conviction that we are drawn in rather than left on the outside laughing at it. (Consider Burlesque for an example of the latter.)

The storyline, which suffers from a diffuse focus, centers on up-and-coming country singer Beau Hutton (Garrett Hedlund), who has become the lover of six-time Grammy superstar Kelly Canter (Gwyneth Paltrow) during her stay in rehab. Beau is not desirous of fame or fortune; he's content writing his songs in obscurity and singing them in bars. Big stages and big crowds are not his dream. The same cannot be said of Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester), a former beauty pageant queen with a big voice but an unfortunate tendency to freeze under pressure or when faced with a room full of people. She and Beau are reluctantly teamed by James Canter (Tim McGraw), Kelly's domineering husband/manager, who is looking for an opening act for his wife's comeback tour. He assigns Beau to be Kelly's "keeper" while deciding to take Chiles under his wing and groom her ascent to stardom. Complications arise when Beau falls for Chiles and Kelly proves too unstable to keep it together for a full show - something that leads to her inevitable return to the bottle.

There are plenty of things to nit-pick about Country Strong, including its naïve and dated view of alcoholism, which is treated more as a plot device than a debilitating disease. However, writer/director Shana Feste (The Greatest) approaches her characters and storyline with respect and sincerity. She resists the temptation to turn any of them into saints or demons. The villain's shades of gray are merely a little darker than those of the heroes. There's also a fascinating duality to be noted. Those who view Country Strong as Kelly's story will see it as a tragedy. Those who see it as Beau's will find something positive and uplifting. Since most viewers will identify equally with both characters, the emotional end balance is mixed.

The casting is odd. From an acting standpoint, Gwyneth Paltrow could pull off this role in her sleep, which sometimes seems to be the case. This is an adequate performance but nothing more. Melodrama like this is often aided by high voltage portrayals; Paltrow underplays the part. Her voice, which we previously heard in the 2000 offering, Duets (where she was paired with Huey Lewis), is solid but not superlative - although, in today's music industry, she's at least as good as a majority of Top 10 singers. Garrett Hedlund (who made this film immediately after getting digital for TRON: Legacy) and Leighton Meester (who dabbles in singing) are photogenic and convincing (if not Oscar material) as singers and actors. Curiously, the only bona fide country star in the movie, Tim McGraw, confines his performance to the spoken word.

Ultimately, Country Strong has it where it counts, which means it can generate an effective emotional response without making the viewer feel like he or she is being pulled through a manipulative meat grinder. There's a fair amount of ambiguity in the relationships, especially in how Beau is torn between the woman he idolizes and protects and the one with whom he connects in a more primal way. And James' layers are peeled back gradually, revealing depth beyond the apparent one-dimensionality with which he is introduced. Calling Country Strong "subtle" is a stretch, but it evidences more breadth than one might suspect based on the misleading marketing campaign, which hints at a triumphant comeback and a rivalry between Kelly and Chiles. Oh, and I suspect country music fans will love the film since it wades hip-deep through the rivers of the genre and rarely comes up for a breather.

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