COUNTRY STRONG is a sorry piece of screenwriting with excellent music and an emotionally ragged and truthful performance from Gwyneth Paltrow that is one of the best of her career. The plot is a string of hackneyed plot points from every flick ever made about show biz. Though there are hints of ALL ABOUT EVE, A STAR IS BORN (all versions), and even a touch of COAL MINERS DAUGHTER, its all recycled with a haphazard hand that demonstrates a complete misunderstanding of basic storytelling. The cameo sharp mini-melodramas of the best country-western songs do more in three minutes than this flick does in its entire running time.
Paltrow is Kelly Canter, a country music superstar and recovering alcoholic pulled from rehab a month early by her business manager/husband James, played by actual country music superstar Tim McGraw, who does not perform in the film, but did require two hair stylists dedicated to his locks for his work here. James wants Kelly on the road again connecting with fans after the scandal that landed her in rehab . Kellys not sure shes ready. Neither is Beau (Garrett Hedlund), by day a rehab orderly, by night, aspiring singer/songwriter in Nashvilles nightclubs. One thing leads to another, as things will do in film like this, and Beau is on the road a the opening act on Kellys comeback tour, along with Chiles (Leighton Meester, another actual country music star), dubious protégé, and perhaps more, of Kellys husband. Naturally Beau and Chiles bicker, then they banter, and then they fall hard for each other. Meanwhile Kelly receives an unwholesome gift just before taking to the stage of her first concert stop, hits the conveniently available vodka bottle, and both the tour and her career become problematical.
There is nothing resembling coherence or consistency or character establishment, much less development, as the film experiences a wild and inchoate leaping from one cliché to the next, which is to say, from one scene to the next. When James offers Beau the chance to tour with Kelly, as in, offering him the world on a silver platter, Beau balks, preferring to spout platitudes about his love for performing, not for fame, before jumping at the opportunity. Meester, with a pouty lower lip and a deer-in-the-headlights stage presence during Chiles first appearance on stage fails to give a sliver of a reason why James would pluck her from obscurity rather than another willing and warbling nymphet. Contrived situations, snooze-inducing dialogue, and one of the most laughable seduction scenes in movie history between Hedlund and Meester, slowly sap the will to live from the viewer, much less the will to see what will happen next.
Paltrow does her own singing and quite well, thank you. She also, for reasons that defy explanation, but which fill the weakened viewer with gratitude, has constructed her own cinematic reality. It is one that is confined to her character alone, alas, but rendered with a visceral immediacy. She cannot overcome the execrable writing, but she uses the contradictions, making them the key component of Kellys life, thereby explaining the train wreck she has become and the hungry artist she was, the one with fire in her belly, but no frame of reference for living the life at the top she so desperately wanted. With McGraw, who is a lesser but solid presence, they get to the heart of the confused, quiet sadness of a marriage in which they lost each other along the way without quite knowing how. It overcomes yet another laughable scene, in which the couple are in bed, she with glitter body makeup, attempts to gain his interest by noting that she has had a Brazilian bikini wax.
Stars rise, stars fall, the tour is jeopardized, and a publicity stunt turns into a moment of truth no one expected amid all the sex, drugs, and mandolin chords. It all gets more and more ridiculous as event piles up on event, leading to a turn of melodramatic excess that defines a new sort of pornography that has nothing to do with sex, but is obscene nonetheless. Its the suitable ending for a painful cinematic experience.