En español | If ever there were a sucker for country music, it would be me. I’ve got Go Country 105 on my radio, a pair of well-worn Tony Lama dancing boots in my closet and Sugarland lyrics in my head. It’s the soulful, honest-to-goodness achy-breaky stuff I’m drawn to — which is why Country Strong, a movie about a country music star battling alcoholism and its shattering effects on her marriage, should have made me Fall to Pieces. Instead, the time on my watch was Always on My Mind.
The film opens with been-around-the-block mega-chanteuse (think Shania Twain or Faith Hill) Kelly Canter, played by Gwyneth Paltrow, doing some impromptu songwriting with an up-and-coming musician named Beau Hutton (the delicious Garrett Hedlund, most recently seen in TRON: Legacy, who kicks ass in this character). Hutton is moonlighting as a janitor at the facility where Kelly is being treated for alcoholism, and he has befriended her. This clearly isn’t her first time in rehab, and we soon learn that a year earlier, inebriated during a performance in Dallas, she took a fall and suffered a miscarriage at five months pregnant. This is a story about addiction, but unlike last year’s Crazy Heart, we never learn what fuels the main character’s self-destructive spiral, nor do we come away with a better understanding of the complexities of substance abuse itself.
Part of the problem is that from the moment Canter’s husband/manager James (played by real-life country star Tim McGraw) gets Kelly out of rehab a month early, purportedly so that she can reclaim her reputation with a three-city tour (including a sure-to-be-painful repeat performance in Dallas), the movie takes up a handful of other story lines, none of them with any particular panache. Writer/director Shana Feste (The Greatest) handles the decline of Kelly and James’s marriage with about as much subtlety as Dr. Phil would. In bed on the eve before setting out on their concert tour, Kelly attempts to seduce James by informing him that she’s just had a Brazilian bikini wax, to which he responds, “I just took an Ambien. See you in eight hours.” Surely there are more nuanced ways to communicate disappointment and regret.
Other subplots center on the corrupting influences of the music industry — and of fame itself. Kelly comes alive before an audience, but she has lost who she is in her stage persona. She’s a commodity first in the eyes of her stereotypical promoter JJ (Jeremy Childs) — and even in those of her husband, who while trying to salvage his wife’s career is also busy exploiting the next new phenom, a Taylor Swift–type singer/songwriter played by Leighton Meester of Gossip Girl. In doing so, he launches the potential for — surprise! — multiple love triangles. All the characters represent industry types, and they’re all clichés. Better films such as The Bodyguard, A Star is Born and Walk the Line prove that the biz may be rough-and-tumble, but it’s not as black-and-white as all that.
In the end, perhaps Country Strong’s saving grace is the music. Surely Gwyneth Paltrow overlooked this project’s obvious flaws for a chance at a musical challenge. But ironically, the film’s theme song doesn’t best showcase Paltrow’s vocal chops; they are most beautifully on display when she sings a cappella, or with just an acoustic guitar to back her up. In truth, the best song to come out of Country Strong is the duet Meester and Hedlund perform called “Give In To Me.” Country’s strength is, in fact, its honest and tender portrayal of human weakness — something “Give In To Me” reveals, and something these filmmakers overlooked.