Sunday, January 09, 2011

Country Strong

COUNTRY STRONG (Shana Feste, 2010)

In COUNTRY STRONG country music star Kelly Canter (Gwyneth Paltrow) gets yanked early from her rehab facility and put back on the road to perform a trio of comeback concerts across Texas. Kelly’s drunken antics on a Dallas stage resulted in a public relations fiasco, not the least of which is because the pregnant singer lost her baby in the incident.

Her husband-manager James (Tim McGraw) is eager to get Kelly back in front of her fans and push aside the tabloid covers. Joining her on the road are up-and-coming singer-songwriter Beau Hutton (Garrett Hedlund), a rehab worker Kelly became familiar with, and precocious beauty queen Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester).

COUNTRY STRONG is essentially a TNN or CMT original production with a bigger star than would appear in a TV movie. With her regal bearing, Paltrow might seem miscast, but since Kelly is more countrypolitan than down home, she acquits herself well enough in the thinly conceived role.

Even with Paltrow headlining as a Shania Twain-type superstar, writer-director Shana Feste seems uncertain just exactly who the film is about. Kelly influences much of what develops, yet she’s off screen for long stretches and incidental to the major thread regarding Beau and Chiles’ complicated but thoroughly uninteresting relationship.

Is COUNTRY STRONG a cautionary tale about the burdens of Kelly’s fame? Is it a catty backstage drama about the rivalry between a potentially falling and rising star? Is it merely a glimpse at the inner workings of the industry from the perspective of newcomers Beau and Chiles? Like an electronic gadget that can perform multiple tasks but none of them well, COUNTRY STRONG attempts to address a variety of pitfalls in the entertainment business but doesn’t deal with any of them satisfactorily. Feste needed to make a choice rather than cramming three movies into one.

With so many storylines battling for supremacy, COUNTRY STRONG never conveys who these people are and is often inconsistent in portraying them. Kelly speaks of how love and fame are incompatible, yet the film does little more than give glancing acknowledgement of the necessity of placing publicity above personal well-being. Beau is supposed to be a rebel with artistic integrity, but he is easily and willingly coopted by the machine. Chiles is established as an ambitious careerist, yet she’s far too passive and uncalculating in chasing the golden ring.

Among its muddled subplots COUNTRY STRONG credibly features a lot of music. Since none of the actors seem destined for the Grand Ole Opry, it doesn't hurt that they are essentially performing pop with pedal steel guitar than being called on to pass as hardcore country and western artists. Adopting a twang and putting on the right clothes help them look and sound the part, but without a more focused screenplay better grounded in the industry, they're really doing nothing more than playing dress up.

Grade: C-

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