January 06, 2011

Country Strong

I wish I knew how to quit you.

Grade: F

Director: Shana Feste

Starring: Gwyneth Paltrow, Tim McGraw, Garrett Hedlund, and Leighton Meester

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Running Time: 1 hr. 52 min.

One tortuous viewing of Country Strong emphatically solves its mysterious disappearing act during this movie awards season. Once aspiring to be a gender-switching rehash of Crazy Heart, last year’s belle of the Oscar ball, Country Strong is more like a long country song that, instead of warbling about a dog, gun, and pickup truck, manifests itself as a near-literal B-movie: booze, bars, a tour bus, incessant babbling, mascara-stained bawling, and a pet bird named Loretta Lynn.

Fresh out of a stint in alcohol rehab, fallen country star Kelly Canter (Gwyneth Paltrow) is thrust back into the limelight of a three-city comeback tour by her husband/manager, James (Tim McGraw). Her opening act is a rising, scruffy singer-songwriter named Beau (Garrett Hedlund), who previously split time playing local honkytonks and working as an orderly at Kelly’s rehab center, where the two also learned to make music between the sheets. Also along for the ride is Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester), an ex-beauty queen-turned-pop tart looking jumpstart her burgeoning country music career.

Country Strong crosses a southern-fried Valley of the Dolls with an unintentional parody as side-splittingly campy as Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. No sooner does James declare that Kelly’s meds shouldn’t be mixed with alcohol than contrivance puts a bottle of Smirnoff in her dressing room. Beau and Chiles’ initial animosity could only mean they’ll eventually end up in bed together. And, so brain-dead is writer-director Shana Feste’s script that it undercuts a poignant slow-dance between James and Kelly by ignoring the fact that it begins with him cutting in on her and a leukemia-stricken boy during a Make-A-Wish visit.

The original songs – performed by the actors themselves – are more forgettable country pop than evocative classic country. Indeed, when a local newspaper declares Chiles and Beau as the next Carrie Underwood and Townes Van Zandt, it is not only quasi-slanderous but hilariously belies everything we’re actually seeing and hearing on screen.

Although Paltrow can carry a tune, she is too old to play a Britney Spears doppelganger and too much the fresh-scrubbed California girl to carry off Kelly’s world-weariness. Hedlund (TRON: Legacy) seems to be channeling Heath Ledger’s drawl in Brokeback Mountain, and Beau’s motives remain as meandering the stitched-together plot. Ironically, McGraw is the only actor that comes close to replicating a realistic character, although even he succumbs to the inane dialogue that cripples this two-hour Hee Haw skit.

Neil Morris

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