Monday, January 10, 2011

Movie Review: Country Strong

Country Strong ** ½
Directed by:
Shana Feste
Written By: Shana Feste.
Starring: Gwyneth Paltrow (Kelly Canter), Tim McGraw (James Canter), Garrett Hedlund (Beau Hutton), Leighton Meester (Chiles Stanton).

Country Strong is a throwback movie riddled with clichés. This almost feels like one of those old showbiz movies from the 1950s - and it hits all the notes that were clichéd even back then. It is a melodrama, and yet unlike the best melodramas, it takes itself far too seriously. There are nice moments littered throughout the movie - and some very strong country music - but it is too clichéd to be taken all that seriously, yet not over the top enough to be a guilty pleasure. It sits right there in the middle - which is deadly dull at times.

Gwyneth Paltrow stars as Kelly Canter - a country music star who checked into rehab after falling off the stage in Dallas while extremely drunk - a move that also cost her her five month old fetus. Her husband, James (Tim McGraw) wants to check her out of rehab early, and go on a mini-tour of Texas - three dates ending in Dallas that will put her back on top. Kelly is not really sure she is ready - and demands that if she goes on tour that an orderly at the rehab clinic, who is also a gifted country singer-songwriter, and her current lover named Beau (Garrett Hedlund) opens for her. James wants former beauty queen and up and coming country-pop singer Chiles (Leighton Meester) - so together they all set out on the road. Almost immediately, thing go the hell.

If you have seen any movie about a musician - whether real or fictional - you know what is going to happen next. Kelly struggles to stay on the wagon, Meester threatens to upstage her, and Beau is torn between the married woman he cares about but cannot save, and the beautiful young woman who he is trying to convince to stay more artistically pure. McGraw is more demanding of Kelly than he really should be - and he has become more of a manager and less of a husband to her, and this sends Kelly even further down her spiral.

The movie will likely remind many of last year’s Oscar winner Crazy Heart, which was also about an alcoholic country singer trying to make a comeback. Crazy Heart was clichéd in itself, but with its great central performance by Jeff Brides, and perhaps even better songs by T-Bone Burnett, it overcame its clichés and became a very satisfying film. Country Strong makes Crazy Heart looks downright daring and original by comparison - there is not a cliché left unexploited in the film, not a moment when it doesn’t seem to try and make you cry. The performances in the movie help it quite a bit - Paltrow is in fine form as the alcoholic star who sounds very much like a country singer when she sings - her voice is dripping with pain and power, and she does an excellent job. I was surprised by Garret Hedlund’s strong voice as well - his gravelly voice would have fit in with the voices of Crazy Heart last year. And Leighton Meester really does sound like a country-pop princess. The songs fit in quite well - they are perhaps the strongest thing about the movie. While the dramatic scenes are riddled with clichés, the movie comes alive when these singers are on stage - and the songs all fit in nicely with the different singers. That is the movies triumph.

Overall however, Country Strong finally collapses under the weight of its own clichés. The finale of the movie is far too pat, too predictable, too heavy handed, and I think finally does the film in. There are nice moments in Country Strong - nice performances and great songs that make Country Strong a reasonably entertaining way to spend a couple of hours. Yet, had they dialed it down just a little bit, it could have been a much better film.

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