January 04, 2011

MOVIES: Country Strong (Shana Feste, 2010)

A year ago, Hollywood gave us Crazy Heart, featuring Jeff Bridges as an alcoholic country singer trying to put his life back together. That worked so well that we're getting a new version of the story this year. And if you think that going from Jeff Bridges to Gwyneth Paltrow is an upgrade, then you're going to love Country Strong.

OK, that's perhaps a harsher assessment than Country Strong deserves, and it's not exactly the same story. In this one, Paltrow plays Grammy-winning country diva Kelly Canter, whose husband/manager, James (Tim McGraw) has managed to get her out of rehab a month early, and plans to send her on a 3-city comeback tour through Texas.

Kelly wants a young hunk named Beau (Garrett Hedlund) for her opening act, mostly because she's been sleeping with him (he works at her rehab facility), but also because he's genuinely talented. James would rather take the former Miss Dallas, Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester). Naturally, both wind up joining the Canter entourage.

So, we've got four big egos, lots of bed-hopping, the predictably unpredictable ups-and-downs of recovery, and lots of country music. You can probably write the rest of the screenplay yourself.

As for the music, it's not bad, though if you're expecting lots of Paltrow songs, you'll be disappointed; Kelly's problems keep Paltrow from really cutting loose until late in the movie. She handles her songs well, though she is by nature more at home with pop than with country. (Of course, these days, the lines between the two are thinner than ever.)

More of the singing falls to Meester and Hedlund, and both are fine. Meester sings light country-pop, sort of a less gritty Taylor Swift; Hedlund gets to be the serious guy who'd rather be true to country music than sell out to get radio airplay, and of the three singing actors, he is the one who seems most comfortable with country music.

(And what the hell is the logic of putting Tim McGraw in a movie about country music and casting him as the one principal character who doesn't sing?)

It's not that Country Strong is a bad movie, really; it's perfectly serviceable, and people who like this sort of thing will enjoy it very much. It's just so thumpingly ordinary and unnecessary. Everything about it is competent, and nothing is special. Sitting through Country Strong is like hoping for a Tammy Wynette concert and getting Shania Twain instead.

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