Director and writer Shana Feste has said that her new film Country Strong, about an alcoholic country singer attempting a comeback, was inspired by Britney Spears, that victim of fame.
But what is the Britney Spears story? It's not even a psychological drama, let alone a classic tragedy - it's just some tawdry tabloid soap opera. Feste struggles mightily to instill meaning and grandeur in Country Strong, but her initial efforts to sidestep cliché often result in confusion before she simply gives up and opts for melodrama.
Gwyneth Paltrow plays Kelly Canter, a country singer who has fallen drunkenly off a stage and miscarried a five-month-old pregnancy. Now she's in rehab, where she has fallen for songwriter and aspiring country singer Beau Hutton (Garrett Hedlund), who just happens to be an orderly in this padded prison.
But husband and manager James (Tim McGraw) needs Kelly out on the comeback trail and springs her a month early. She insists that Beau be her opening act; James wants to give that spot to the seemingly talentless beauty queen Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester), but when he sees Beau rescue Chiles as she freezes on stage, he incorporates them both into the show.
The stage seems set for a rather obvious pair of infidelities, with the older couple now hauling around a pair of young temptations. To give Feste her due, she avoids that: James keeps his hands off the beauty queen while Beau, who initially despises Chiles, gradually sees she is not as dumb as she pretends and begins a feisty seduction. But if Chiles isn't a pretty airhead, who is she? Feste isn't really sure, and Meester, having produced the initial stereotype on cue, is now left to mainly play nice.
Similarly, Feste is determined James will not be some villainous Svengali, but the writer-director hasn't included enough scenes from his marriage for an audience to do more than vaguely sympathize with the man: it must be exceedingly difficult to run a business in which your only asset is a wife with an erratic ego. McGraw does a lovely job of showing that James is still moved by his wife - the man does love her - but, beyond that, he has little with which to work and we are left to imagine what could have been the most penetrating scenes in the film.
McGraw and Meester at least have character complications that they can hint at in their performances, however confusingly. Hedlund is left to play Beau on a single note of heroic integrity: Whether he's rescuing women or writing songs, the boy is all gentleman. It's awfully sweet, but the psychological premise has exhausted itself long before the movie is over.
At Kelly's final moment of on-stage triumph, Feste is left cutting from a close-up of a towering Paltrow to Hedlund's ecstatically supportive grin and McGraw's sadly supportive grin. She lamely repeats that series of shots before moving to the film's melodramatic conclusion.
Which brings us to Paltrow, of course. First, let it be said that Country Strong has a pleasant soundtrack of conservative country music, many of the tunes newly written for the movie, some of them performed by old pros and some of them performed by the cast. Yes, Paltrow is plausible as a country singer, if not perhaps as a country star.
The problem is her spoken performance, which does show us her pain and fear in life and her joy and affirmation on stage, but in the end can never produce the scale - that Coal Miner's Daughter emotional belt - that is going to make us feel this woman's tragedy
Beau tells Kelly that love and fame can't reside in the same place. Sadly, this movie never explains why.
- Written and directed by Shana Feste
- Starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Garrett Hedlund, Tim McGraw and Leighton Meester
- Classification: PG