The light-hearted country formula of tractors, dogs and booze is nowhere in the script of “Country Strong.” Well, except for the booze. Instead, the movie strives to break country stereotypes with a heavy dose of drama, centered on Gwyneth Paltrow’s character, a mentally unstable and perpetually sobbing country star trying to mend her career.
The movie begins with superstar Kelly Canter (Paltrow) in a rehab center for alcoholism. A humble country bar crooner who works at the center, Beau Hutton (Garrett Hedlund), visits Canter in her room, guitar in hand. As the two improvise a country song together, Kelly’s easy smile and encouragement of the young singer insinuate a sexual relationship between the two, which is contrasted with her timid behavior around her manager and husband, James Canter (Tim McGraw).
James takes his wife out of rehab early and insists that she start touring again, with Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester), a young and marketable pop-country singer, as her opening act. Kelly agrees on the terms that Beau also opens for her on tour. It seems McGraw is destined to act the part of the heartless, misunderstanding husband, but the audience soon finds there is more depth to his character.
In fact, both male leads earn the viewer’s affection better than Paltrow, whose character is pitiable but not likeable. Kelly’s rehab stint followed a drunken performance in Dallas where she fell off the stage and miscarried her baby. The incident is referenced on multiple occasions, but the script never allows Kelly to fully express her remorse, leaving her character one-dimensional and urging the audience to sympathize with her husband.
Kelly’s brighter moments are shadowed by an affair with Beau, failed concert performances and drunken sobfests. Even when she returns to Dallas and delivers a knockout performance, which is sealed by the movie’s upbeat title track “Country Strong,” Kelly manages to follow up her success with disaster.
It is no wonder Beau falls for a less complicated woman, Chiles, whose school-girl-crush lyrics are reminiscent of Taylor Swift songs. Meester’s character has the potential to stand out, but the script’s focus on Kelly leaves little room for Chiles’ character to develop from airheaded beauty queen to misunderstood young woman. Chiles’ decision at movie’s end between love and fame is her potential redemption.
Scenes between Meester and Hedlund are the most engaging, not only because the pair is undeniably attractive, but also because their duet is the movie’s catchiest song, “Give In To Me.” Hedlund’s deep voice is easily the best of the cast (oddly, McGraw doesn’t sing a note the whole film) and will appeal even to country music haters. Meester’s light pop voice steers the song away from too much twang.
Expect the same from the rest of the movie’s soundtrack — simple lyrics and smooth melodies that will draw you in, even if you can’t handle the melodrama of the plot. Paltrow may be cast as the star, but Hedlund makes “Country Strong” worth a watch, or rather, a listen. His solo song “Chances Are” is simple lyrically and melodically but well-sung, a hallmark of classic country songs.
“Country Strong’s” plot and main character are weaker than its title suggests, but a strong soundtrack and supporting cast make the movie worthwhile for country fans.