By Matt Brunson
DIRECTED BY Shana Feste
STARS Gwyneth Paltrow, Tim McGraw
Jeff Bridges won an Academy Award this past year for playing a boozy country singer in Crazy Heart, but don't expect Gwyneth Paltrow to win even so much as a People's Choice Award for playing a similar part in Country Strong. It's not that Paltrow is anywhere near terrible she does a valiant job trying to overcome the role's predictable arcs through sheer force of tears and slurred words but it's unlikely many folks will remember a movie that for all I know might indeed be "country strong" but is most assuredly cinematically weak.
Paltrow stars as country superstar Kelly Canter, who when the picture opens is being sprung from rehab a tad too early by her husband-manager James (Tim McGraw). Beau Hutton (Garrett Hedlund), an orderly at the clinic, thinks this is a mistake; luckily for all concerned, he also turns out to be an aspiring singer-songwriter, so at James' insistence, he joins Kelly's upcoming three-city tour to keep an eye on her as well as serve as her opening act. Also along for the ride is Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester), another wannabe country star who's tasked with splitting the opening bill with Beau. From here, the movie turns into a soap-opera version of musical chairs. Beau is interested in Kelly and Chiles and songwriting. Kelly is interested in James and Beau and the bottle. Chiles is interested in Beau and James and superstardom. James is interested in Kelly and Chiles and Beau (wait, scratch that last one this ain't Brokeback Mountain).
Consistency is hardly the strong suit of writer-director Shana Feste. Beau is constantly applauded by the other characters for being one of the "few good ones," yet the way he ping-pongs between Kelly and Chiles makes him seem like merely a randy good ole boy. Chiles begins the picture as All About Eve's Eve Harrington before transforming into The Sound of Music's Maria. And even for a boozehound, Kelly's actions rarely make sense from one scene to the next (this leads to a ridiculous WTF ending that left me cold). At least the unlikely character transitions allow the actors to provide some shadings to their portrayals. Hedlund is utilized far better here than in TRON: Legacy, while McGraw's minimalist efforts work just fine for the part of James. And in the unlikely chance this proves to be a hit, it might provide Meester (TV's Gossip Girl) with her breakout role, considering she makes the best impression of the four leads.
At almost a full two hours, the film is criminally overlong and has as many false endings as The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. The soundtrack includes mostly new tunes, but the only country song that kept racing through my increasingly bored mind was Willie Nelson's "Wake Me When It's Over."