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The Independent Critic

Gwyneth Paltrow, Tim McGraw, Garrett Hedlund, Leighton Meester
Shana Feste
Rated PG-13
111 Mins.
Screen Gems
Country Strong Soundtrack
"Shake That Thing" - Extended Performance
Original Ending
Deleted Scenes
"Country Strong" by Gwyneth Paltrow - Music Video
"A Little Bit Stronger" by Sara Evans - Music Video

 "Country Strong" Review 
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There are moments in Country Strong, many of them actually, when it becomes incredibly apparent this picture is to being a damn fine film, a heartfelt and melodramatic tour-de-force featuring Gwyneth Paltrow's finest outing in quite some time as Kelly Cantor, a six-time Grammy winning country singer struggling to maintain her sobriety, achieve some degree of sanity, hold on to her marriage to her manager James (Tim McGraw) and bounce back from a devastating concert appearance a few years earlier that took the life of her unborn child.

After a couple of months in rehab, James pulls her out and back onto the road with hopes of kickstarting her stalled career with a mini-tour that will end in Dallas, the infamous scene of her tragic collapse years earlier. Of course, this wouldn't be a melodrama without a bit more drama thrown into the mix in the form of James adding an up-and-coming beauty and wannabe singer, Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester, Gossip Girl), and Beau Hutton (Garrett Hedlund, Tron: Legacy), a country hunk with a smooth baritone who's also designated to watch over Kelly's fragile sobriety.

Country Strong will work best for those who believe the film's melodrama to be an intentional choice by writer/director Shana Feste, an effort to evoke old school country music and stories brought to life on the big screen. The film will work, as well, for those who can appreciate the many wonderful parts of the film including the quartet of leading players, all of whom transcend the film's cliche' ridden script and complete and utter predictability.

Much has been made in the press about this being a rather down and dirty performance from Gwyneth Paltrow, a rather pristine cinematic princess more prone to playing with royalty than Crown Royal. While this is an undeniable stretch for mighty Ms. Paltrow, it's difficulty to deny that virtually every frame of her performance, save for one incredibly tender yet ludicrous scene with a leukemia patient, feels like an intentional exercise in high-strung histrionics along the lines of your typical Hilary Swank "I want another Oscar!" performance. There's nothing particularly wrong with Paltrow's performance - on the contrary, she has many wonderful moments and comes off much better as a country crooner than one might think. The problem is that her dialogue is frequently so intentionally intense that her performance feels more like an attempt to win an award than an attempt to bring to life the character of Kelly Cantor.

As her longtime husband and manager, Tim McGraw is once again called upon to be the tender-hearted country dude with a gruff exterior, though he's decidedly more gruff than tender and at times feels more like a twisted svengali than a life companion. James is, by far, the most underwritten of the leading characters, a caricature of the money-motivated fame wrangler who doesn't catch on to his aberrant behavior until it's far too late. To McGraw's credit, he wisely disciplines his performance enough that we're never 100% sure if James is simply hardened by fame, a complete jackass, an abuser, an infidel or all of the above. McGraw never really gives away his intentions, especially his seemingly impure interest in the up-and-coming Chiles Stanton.

Perhaps one of the biggest mistakes that Feste makes with the film is in the way that it's structured, with the burgeoning careers and sparks of romance between the younger duo of Beau and Chiles proving to be far more interesting, involving and entertaining than anything involving the psychodrama of Kelly and James. While all four characters intertwine quite nicely, it's truly lamentable that Beau and Chiles aren't front and center of this motion picture.

The simple truth is that Garrett Hedlund, recently of Tron: Legacy, gives an extraordinary performance as Beau Hutton, a young man who believes that fame and love simply cannot co-exist and who leans towards love even after having the chance to open for Kelly on the road. Hedlund is the best singer here (McGraw never sings in the film), and his character is by far the most interesting even if Feste makes the mistake of darkening him a shade too much to truly sell his "gentle soul" image awarded by Kelly and bought into by Chiles.

Leighton Meester shines as the film's "country Barbie," a more market-friendly pop country singer with bubble gum lyrics and beauty queen looks who aspires to fame despite having a tendency to freeze up on stage and having an offstage persona that indicates there's something bubbling underneath her pretty vacant eyes.

There is much to like about Country Strong, and fans of country music and/or any of the leading players will unquestionably find enough going on here to justify at least a matinee view. While the vocal edge goes to Garrett Hedlund, both Paltrow and Meester redeem themselves quite nicely and it's quite likely you'll leave the theatre humming at least one of the tunes and headed out to pick up the soundtrack.

Let's be honest. There's a tremendous amount of campy charm in much of country music, so it's entirely likely that most folks who rush to the theatres to check out Country Strong won't be bothered by it and, in fact, could find themselves genuinely moved by the emotional cliche's and hyped up emotions. While regular moviegoers and film critics will no doubt be bothered by the predictable storylines and seesaw of country music themes like alcoholism and cheatin' hearts. the reality is that most folks don't go to movies often enough to be as distracted by it all as will be your average movie critic.

Perhaps what bothered this critic the most about Country Strong is the hypocrisy of having two mega stars headlining a film in which the central theme seems to be that fame and love cannot mix. While other hypocrisies stand out throughout the film, this foundational flaw coupled with the fact that with the exception of Leighton Meester's Chiles Stanton we're left without a truly sympathetic character in a film practically demanding sympathy leads to a lack of emotional resonance that makes the film's climactic scenes feel sadly anti-climactic and uninvolving.

Thanks to a terrific cast, Country Strong never collapses under the weight of Shana Feste's heavy-handed dialogue and direction. It's easy to understand why everyone involved sign on to this project, a film with meaty and complex characters. Unfortunately, Feste's unsteady directorial hand loses control of the film and what could have been a fantastic start to the 2011 cinematic season ends up kicking off the year with a melodramatic dose of movie mediocrity.

© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic