Great country songwriters know that a fine but distinct line can be drawn between eye-rolling cliches and universal truths, between human drama and sudsy melodrama.
Unfortunately, filmmaker Shana Feste either can't find or willfully crosses those lines with her big-screen country music soap opera “Country Strong.”
The second film from the writer-director, who made her feature debut with 2009's acclaimed grief tale “The Greatest,” makes beautiful music. Feste made the movie in Nashville, Tenn., and tapped some of Music City's top songwriters and producers to craft a strong soundtrack. The rock-solid original songs reflect the divergent styles of the genre and help define the characters playing them.
Actors Gwyneth Paltrow, Leighton Meester and especially Garrett Hedlund have potent singing voices and put their hearts into their musical numbers.
But the rest of “Country Strong” just doesn't sing, despite admirable performances and comfortable chemistry among the four leads. The story is too clunky and overstuffed, and its flaws are even more glaring when spotlighted against stellar country music dramas such as “Coal Miner's Daughter,” “Walk the Line” and “Crazy Heart.”
Paltrow stars as Kelly Canter, a country music superstar who has been in rehab since she drunkenly fell off the stage during a concert and suffered a miscarriage. Her aloof husband-manager, James (Tim McGraw, who doesn't sing in the film), pulls her out of rehab early to begin her comeback tour, claiming it's in her best interest.
Although he comes across as self-serving, James may have a point: Kelly has taken a codependent shine to Beau Hutton (Hedlund), a young singer-songwriter who works as an orderly at her rehabilitation center. Kelly refuses to go on tour without her lover and insists on making Beau her opening act. But James has already chosen his protege, beauty-queen-turned-singer Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester), to warm the crowds. Unable to compromise, the couple take Beau and Chiles on the road, steering the tour toward an inevitable emotional wreck.
Feste deserves credit for populating her on-screen world with multidimensional humans who have singular strengths and flaws. But the filmmaker doesn't give the foursome adequate backstories, leaving viewers with more nagging questions than rooting interest in the characters.
Likewise, the auteur warrants praise for not treating alcoholism as a quick-fix issue, but she earns groans for depending on the old trope of Kelly nursing an injured baby bird as a metaphor for the addict's fragile recovery. The movie explores dark places that aren't reflected in the bright tone of the trailers.
Along with the entertaining concert scenes, “Country Strong” features some poignant moments, particularly when Kelly charms a pediatric cancer patient on a Make-A-Wish mission. But the melodrama hits too many false notes to qualify as a country classic.
— Brandy McDonnell
PG-131:522 Â½ stars Starring: Gwyneth Paltrow, Garrett Hedlund, Tim McGraw and Leighton Meester. (Thematic elements involving alcohol abuse and some sexual content)