With Gwyneth Paltrow, Tim McGraw, Garrett Hedlund, Leighton Meester, Jeremy Childs. Directed by Shana Feste. Rated PG-13 for thematic elements involving alcohol abuse and some sexual content. 112 minutes.
Watching COUNTRY STRONG you get the sense that you’ve seen it all before: the fragile female country singing sensation, the manager/husband with the wandering eye, the young songwriter getting a big break, the arrogant beauty queen who is hiding a heart of gold. The whole movie is a creaky buildup to Gwyneth Paltrow’s big star turn at the end where she gets to belt out a number of country songs at a big concert. Unfortunately, it’s not worth the wait.
Paltrow stars as Kelly Canter, who has been in rehab since “something” happened while she was performing in Dallas a year ago. The details are only slowly revealed so they won’t be spoiled here, but instead of treating it like a mystery, writer/director Shana Feste would have been better off if she told us everything up front so that her character would have some depth. Instead, she’s a kindhearted singer in a marriage to her manager James (Tim McGraw) that has gone sour. She’s been enjoying an affair with Beau (Garrett Hedlund), an attendant at the facility who is also a singer/songwriter. However he’s more interested in performing for the little people at the local honkytonk than in achieving stardom.
When Kelly is sprung from rehab by James for a comeback tour, she insists that Beau be hired as an opening act. James prefers Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester), a beauty queen who freezes up at the mike. When Beau rescues Chiles at her disastrous tryout, they both get hired. We then follow this quartet on their three-city tour, where Kelly crashes and burns at each step along the way. It all builds up to the big Dallas concert, where there will be lots of singing, and the various stories play out to their sappy endings.
The recent “Burlesque” also gave us a script that was a pile of clichés, but it was fun if you enjoyed the performers and the songs. Of the four leads there’s only one real country singer here – McGraw – and he’s the only one who doesn’t sing a note in the film. Meester is best known from the TV series “Gossip Girl,” while Hedlund’s probably best known for his role as Jeff Bridges’ son in the current “Tron: Legacy.” Paltrow is a star who is clearly bidding to become known as multi-talented. It’s not exactly Cher and Christine Aguilera, who walk onto the set of a musical with some serious credits behind them.
Then there’s the music. If one is a country music fan then perhaps that will make up for everything else here. If you’re not – and this reviewer isn’t – then the soundtrack sounds like they’re doing the same song over and over. The melodies and lyrics apparently change, but to the non-fan they’re indistinguishable.
“Country Strong” is lightweight diversion for those who think a plaid shirt and a cowboy hat is the height of fashion. Those with more urban – and urbane – tastes should look elsewhere.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being I’ll Have What She’s Having: Behind The Scenes Of The Great Romantic Comedies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville.