If you crossed “A Star is Born” with “All About Eve” and gave the mix a western accent, you’d have something like “Country Strong,” a hackneyed backstage soap opera set in the world of country-western music that has neither the emotional punch nor the acid wit of its models. It’s a specimen of melodramatic hokum with all the subtlety of the lyrics of the country-western songs that fill the soundtrack.
Gwyneth Paltrow stars as Kelly Canter, a CW star who crashed and burned after a drunken disaster at a Dallas concert. (The exact nature of the traumatic event isn’t revealed until late in the movie, so it won’t be here.) In a rustic clinic where she can dry out and regain her bearings, she’s supported by Beau Hutton (Garrett Hedlund), a young honky-tonk singer who, it appears, is also an orderly at the place. Beau’s distressed when James (Tim McGraw), Kelly’s husband and manager, insists on taking her out of rehab early to do a three-city Texas comeback tour. James, who’s not entirely a faithful spouse, is also grooming petite belter Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester), a beauty pageant up-and-comer, as the opening act. And Kelly, knowing her hubby’s wandering eye, insists that Beau be added to the bill as well.
What follows is the course of the tour, with the tremulous Kelly faring poorly at the initial two stops, buffeted by her suspicions about James and Chiles, her alcoholism, and her continuing grief over the previous tragedy. Meanwhile Beau tries to help her while James looks on jealously, James hobnobs with Chiles, Chiles tries to overcome her insecurities, and Beau and Chiles grudgingly learn to respect and even love one another. The interplay among the quartet—none of the other characters is much more than a walk-on—is supposed to be touching and revelatory of something or other, but in fact it comes across as little more than histrionics of daytime-TV quality.
The acting isn’t bad, though even Paltrow is hobbled by the heavy-handedness of the scenario, though she pulls off a maudlin interlude when Kelly tries to buck up her reputation by visiting a child cancer victim. McGraw, perhaps conscious of his thespian limitations, underplays even in scenes where he’s supposed to go all out, while Meester, as a watered-down version of an ultra-ambitious Eve, doesn’t really convince. The person who comes off best is Hedlund, who makes a far better impression here than he did in “Tron: Legacy.” Admittedly Beau is nothing more than a really good ol’ boy, principled and helpful to an incredible degree; but Hedlund makes him reasonably likable. It’s a performance that shows some authentic charisma. The technical side of the picture is fine, although despite a few road signs some of the exteriors don’t look much like the supposed Texas locales.
One of the attractions of “Country Strong,” at least for some viewers, will be the soundtrack, which features scads of country-western songs offered up by all the members of the cast (save for McGraw, curiously enough). None is especially memorable, but they all fit the bill (sometimes too snugly, in fact, in terms of linking up thematically with the surrounding narrative)—especially in terms of expressing the sort of heart-on-sleeve schmaltz that CW music drips with.
In fact, this viewer’s reaction to the movie can be expressed with the words of one of the picture’s most frequently performed songs: “Country Strong” wore me down, but didn’t get to me—at least not in the way the makers intended. “Country Wrong” is more like it.