Country Strong (2011) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Country Strong (2011)

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Andrew INDIFFERENTCountry Strong goes through its breakdown and concert scenes with one specific destination preordained by the Almighty.  Since this is about country music that isn't exactly a surprise, but since one of our main characters is a skeptic maybe there'll be some kind of conversion.  Wait, so there's a sacrifice but no real conversion?  Okay, then how about this, the movie points towards signs of a possible secular school of thought forming in modern country music.  No, there are still songs about God, angels and all that.  Hmmm.

For lack of anything more interesting to analyze or posit about any possible subtext in Country Strong I'll give it this: the movie is filled with a whole bunch of pretty white folks who look beautiful even when they're mired in severe alcoholic depression.  It's the kind of film where the makeup and hair styles are perfect 24/7, where the songs are positive and the crowd is (almost) always supportive no matter the circumstances.

This is the kind of harmless, heart wrenching plot-twist, good natured film that you rent on an especially slow Saturday night if you happen to be a fan of modern country.  Me, I like Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, Roy Orbison, and Dolly Parton so I didn't quite get a lot out of the songs here.  But there was one number I found myself humming and the performances are solid enough all around to avoid this being any sort of overt failure.

Kelly, one of the many emotionally insane characters in Country Strong.

The plot of Country Strong is one that we haven't seen in some time even if it's as old as Hollywood is new.  Kelly Canter (Gwyneth Paltrow), a country superstar, took a bad tumble in an alcoholic haze and spent the better part of a year in rehab.  We open with one of her sponsors, Beau Hutton (Garrett Hedlund), relinquishing her to the custody of her business minded husband James (Tim McGraw).  James' plan is to put Kelly immediately back on tour days after she gets out of rehab.  Somehow sensing ahead of time that this is a bad idea, James invites Garrett to play at Kelly's suggestion and the three of them are joined by the talented but undercooked young talent of  Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester).

There are very few surprises in Country Strong save an ending that I should have guessed sooner had I been paying a little closer attention to Kelly's slide into rampant alcohol and pill consumption.  James is alternately hot and cold when it comes to his wife, Beau is suspiciously close to Kelly but has one of those "you blink first you stud you" rivalries with Chiles, and Chiles, well, she's basically there to threaten Kelly then give a random cast member romantic motivation.

This is storytelling about as simple as it gets with the melodramatic pendulum set to disconcerting heights.  That's not to say that it's a bad thing, but the amount of changes that characters go through in the span of two minutes that it's perplexing to say who will by acting in what emotional register next.  Poor Gwyneth Paltrow must have gotten whiplash thinking about the changes to her character alone.  Early in the movie she's excited for her comeback, then terrified to the point of freezing up, then angry like a stereotypical southerner waving a liquor bottle around - all in the span of two minutes.

She's young! She's hip! She dresses, acts, and sings exactly opposite the way the lead does! Is she destined for greatness?

Every character in the film is like this and though Paltrow has the hardest role to work with, everyone is asked to go through so many unexplained changes from scene to scene that I was impressed any were able to keep up.  The script is largely to blame, neglecting to include large chunks of important conversations and backstage details that we can't even guess with the available information, let alone the manic tonal shifts.  When the story can't think of anything to do with them it just sends characters off on emotionally pandering field trips.  The most out of place is a "private concert" that Kelly gives to a cancer child which happens so suddenly that I dare anyone point to the spot in the script where it's written that it is supposed to happen.

The writer and director of Country Strong is Shana Feste, who's previous film was the similar emotionally confounding The Greatest.  That film was more confusing with the way it's characters were edited as though they were in a free-fall through time.  Here it's just been substituted for blunt emotional shifts and it's not an improvement.  There's little sign of her talent either as a unique directing voice, or as a passable scriptwriter, and few indications she's improved between the two movies.

All that said, this is really a harmless flick.  It doesn't have the in depth character study of the far stronger Crazy Heart from a couple of years ago.  But it's kind of nice to see good people trying to get their lives back together, even if the horrible decisions made stem less from the characters and more from a vengeful screen-writing deity.  You'll like a tune or two, just don't try and explain anyone's motivations the day after you watch this.

No one needs a stress headache that early in the morning.

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Country Strong (2011)

Written and directed by Shana Feste.
Starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Garrett Hedlund, Tim McGraw, and Leighton Meester.

Posted by Andrew

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