Country Strong

By Amy Nicholson

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Posted January 6, 2011 in Film

Country music makes for great melodrama. Its fans believe that a comeback is a Christian right; their superstar transgressors are forgiven faster than an ex-con rapper can yelp “Free Weezy!” Writer-director Shana Feste’s drama tracks a three-show tour where a stadium-filling alcoholic (Gwyneth Paltrow) self-destructs before her husband (Tim McGraw), ambitious opening acts (Leighton Meester and Garrett Hedlund) and the state of Texas, all of whom still remember when she fell off a stage, miscarried and flung herself into rehab. (The Heartland pardons her lost child only because most are too polite to mention it.) Gwyneth Paltrow is curious casting to play disgraced singer Kelly Canter—she’s associated more with microgreens than Merle Haggard—but she’s got the long legs, blond curls and big smile of a six-time Grammy winner. In fact, she bears a passing resemblance to movie husband Tim McGraw’s real life wife Faith Hill (Grammys: five). We know the curtain has dropped on her best days on the stage. Still, we see flashes of who she used to be: winning over a tough press conference, charming a boy with leukemia, writing smart lyrics on the spot, ordering her hairdresser to tease, tease, tease. To really understand her past, look to her opener Leighton Meester, a beauty queen who makes success look easy. With her sweet voice and guileless PR act (she’s very sincere about her faux naivety), she’s pure pop country and primed to get swept up into the machine. By contrast, fellow opener Garrett Hedlund has the skill and the soul, but is too authentic to care about cash. Hedlund was the male ingénue in Tron: Legacy, but couldn’t hold his own against the flashing lights and pummeling visuals. Here, in this quieter, simpler flick, we see he just might be a movie star. As the foursome travels between Houston, Austin and Dallas for Canter’s comeback tour, they flirt and argue with savage selfishness. Feste doesn’t trust us to understand their struggles—she even tacks on a baby bird meant to represent Canter’s failed motherhood—but while the cast gives in to her need to play it big, they pass off the clunky lines as people play-acting at their own emotional honesty. In one powerful scene, James walks away from his wife to sit and think and the supposed villain comes into focus as a man quietly carrying his own pain. These two couples are written flat, but in glimpses we see that they’re flawed and full; as Jeff Bridges did for Crazy Heart, this cast is feverishly giving life to schlock. ’Course, sometimes there’s a time for schlock, especially when it sings.


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