Length: 117 minutes
Release Date: January 7, 2011
Directed by: Shana Feste
Stars: 3 out of 5
When trailers first leaked of the movie “Country Strong,” many watchers focused more on actress Gwyneth Paltrow singing than the film itself. That’s disappointing because writer and director Shana Feste (“The Greatest”) delivers a strong movie that manages to find its own heart.
Kelly (Paltrow, “Shakespeare in Love,” “Iron Man”) is a country singer, and when the movie starts, she finds herself back in rehab. Her husband James (country singer Tim McGraw) encourages her to leave the program early and launch a new tour. Though she doesn’t feel comfortable leaving, she agrees to his plans. The audience also meets Beau (Garrett Hedlund, “Tron: Legacy,” “Eragon”), a young singer who is in the middle of an affair with Kelly.
Their affair leads Kelly to push James to hire Beau as her opening act. James turns her down because he wants Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester, “That’s My Boy,” “Gossip Girl”). Kelly hates Stanton almost immediately because the young girl reminds her of the girl she herself once was. Stanton is a former beauty queen and an up-and-coming country star, and she has the respect of James. Beau stands by Kelly’s side, calling Stanton “country Barbie” and claiming that she will never be a success. Things change when Stanton gets stage fright and Beau sings with her, which earns him a spot on the tour.
The purpose of the new tour is to restore the wholesome image that Kelly once had. The audience learns that she let her alcoholism control her life to the point where she kept drinking after becoming pregnant. At one concert, she was so drunk that she fell off the stage and had a miscarriage. Just before her next show, she gets a disturbing package that leads to a breakdown on stage.
As “Country Strong” progresses, the audience learns more about the music industry as Kelly goes through a downward spiral. Beau walks away from her when he cannot handle her mood swings anymore, and he forms a relationship with Stanton. James knows that she keeps getting worse, but he is unwilling to let her give up on her career. The movie goes through a circle by showing Kelly at her worse and then as she slowly gets better. When she finally steps on stage to belt out her hit songs, the audience will find themselves rooting for her. By the time the movie reaches its shocking conclusion, there won’t be a dry eye in the crowd.
“Country Strong” has some amazing singing from actors unknown to music fans. Meester had a promising singing career before joining the cast of the television show “Gossip Girl,” and Paltrow parlayed the success of this movie into a role on the TV show “Glee,” roles in Broadway musicals, and a country album. Whether the two sing on their own or in a duet, they have strong voices that make the movie more believable.
The only flaw with the movie is the sometimes-disjointed screenplay. The film jumps around from one scene to the next so quickly that it can sometimes make the watcher feel dizzy. It never takes the time to explain the backstory of any character other than Kelly, because Paltrow is the star. When the other characters give the backstory of others, it weighs the movie down. Instead of seeing Stanton as a beauty queen, the movie lets one of the other characters explain to the audience that she once competed on the pageant circuit.
Some of the strongest scenes in the movie come in the last half. Paltrow is a believable alcoholic, and the audience can believe the struggles that she faces as she attempts to rebuild her career even as alcohol keeps calling her back. Meester is one of the highlights of the movie. As you watch her on screen, you will find yourself believing her as a young girl caught between her dreams of stardom and finding the perfect boy. Though the movie makes Paltrow the star, Meester manages to upstage her during their scenes together.
Even McGraw is a powerhouse here. Though he acted in a few roles previously, including “The Blind Side,” this is one of his better roles. While he sometimes comes across as a villain, he makes it clear that James truly does love his wife and that he wants her to get better.
“Country Strong” has a few missteps and feels a little plodding during the middle, but the strong voice work, acting talent, and memorable scenes make it worthwhile watching.