Our Score: 3 1/2 out of 5 stars
“I just got out of rehab
And I’m going back on tour
I’m heading back to Dallas
Where I’ll be booed I’m sure”
Sounds like the beginning of a bad country song, doesn’t it? Thanks, I aim to please. What it is, in a nutshell, is the story of the new film, “Country Strong,” a movie that is, thankfully, much better than my lyrics.
Country music star Kelly Canter (Paltrow) has a problem with alcohol. Because of it, she’s getting some much needed help in rehab. There she is befriended (wink, wink) by a staff member, Beau Hutton (Hedlund) who just happens to be a rising country singer. When Kelly’s husband Jim (Tim McGraw) gets her released early for a short tour, she insists that Beau be her opening act. But Jim has another act in mind, local Texas beauty queen Chiles Stanton (Meester), a cutie with a fine voice and a terrible case of stage fright. Hedging his bets, Jim takes them both on what will be the tour of a lifetime.
Last year’s “Crazy Heart” looked at the world of country music through the eyes of a star who was past his prime. “Country Strong” features a heroine who is still on top (think Reba McEntire, circa 1995), albeit a heroine who has fallen on hard times. Seems Kelly showed up in Dallas drunk as a skunk, fell off the stage and miscarried the baby she was carrying. I know, it sounds like the makings of another song. Anyway, the highlight of her mini-tour will be a televised return to big “D,” though if her “fan mail” is any indication she may want to skip the trip. Television reporters spit out her name and the city of Dallas in the same breath. In fact, I think Lee Harvey Oswald might get a better reception were he to suddenly show up in Dealy Plaza than Kelly can look forward to. But as they say, the show must go on.
Though the plot is almost formulaic, “Country Strong” has two things going for it: talented actors and great music. Oscar winner Paltrow is top notch as Kelly. She easily smiles as she embarks on this next chapter of her life, thinking that if she pleases everyone (her husband, the record company, her fans) that her mistakes of the past will be forgiven. But behind that smile we can see the pain and uncertainty in Kelly’s eyes, and it is the rare actor that can convey multiple emotions with a single look. Vocally, she shines in her concert scenes. Paltrow has sung before on screen, having appeared in the film “Duets,” which her late father directed. A version of the song “Cruisin’,” performed by Paltrow and Huey Lewis, placed high on the charts in 2000. And of course, there was here outstanding appearance late last year on “Glee.” Here she tackles the material with gusto and a stage presence that makes her look like a natural. Hedlund, who is currently on screen in “TRON: Legacy,” and Meester are equally strong, making what could have been cardboard supporting characters come alive. Though pitted as rivals, they come to realize that they both have more in common then fleeting moments on stage. Both sing for themselves in the film and have very strong voices. And I would be remiss if I didn’t comment on the only country singer in the film who doesn’t get a chance to sing. I have been impressed with Tim McGraw since he almost stole “Friday Night Lights” from Billy Bob Thornton. Since then he has given strong performances in films like “Four Christmases” ( very funny) and last year’s “The Blind Side.” If he ever wanted to hang up the hat and pursue acting full time I guarantee he’d never disappoint.
The music, supervised by Wes Anderson’s go to guy, Randall Poster, is also quite good, with many of the original songs on par with last year’s Oscar winner from “Crazy Heart,” “The Weary Kind” (though my favorite song on that soundtrack is “Fallin’ and Flyin’”) and I can see several of them appearing soon on your local country station. If there is any fault with the film, as I noted above, it’s the story line, which plays very much like a CMT Movie of the Week. The cast and music help overcome that drawback, but not enough that you don’t notice it.