Thursday, April 28, 2011

Country Strong

Director: Shana Feste
Starring: Gwyneth Paltrow, Tim McGraw, Garrett Hedlund, Leighton Meester
Running Time: 112 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

I remember reading an article some time back describing Gwyneth Paltrow the "anti-girl next door." As inaccurate as that title is is, it's still pretty funny since you immediately know what it implies. Yes it's true that Paltrow isn't really like Sandra Bullock, Julia Roberts or even Jennifer Aniston, despite being more talented and doing more consistently diverse work than them. Women don't want to be her best friend or hang out with her. Guys generally aren't interested in bringing her home to mom. There's this aura of sophistication and aloofness to her that's caused the media to unfairly or not label her as "cold." Worse yet, there's this perception she's unwilling to get her hands dirty in a gritty role. For many, just the thought of Paltrow drinking a beer, much less playing a alcoholic country singer caught in a downward spiral of addiction and depression, would be good for a few laughs. And in Country Strong it is. But not because of her performance, which while very good, is strangely still the least impressive in the film. She's completely believable as a country superstar, especially onstage where she's no better or worse than some of the singers you'd typically see on the Country Music Awards or Billboard charts. It's everything that happens off stage with her character that's ridiculous. And that's not Paltrow's fault. It's bad form for me to do this but Roger Ebert hit the nail right on the head when he wrote in the first line of his review:

"Country Strong is one of the best movies of 1957, and I mean that sincerely as a compliment."
There's almost nothing to add to that. A true throwback, the movie is essentially a full-length melodramatic soap opera and guilty pleasure worthy of a recommendation if not for the fact I still have to look at myself in the mirror tomorrow morning. It's awful and at times unintentionally hilarious in how it piles on every cliche in the book, but has so much fun doing it and wears its heart on its sleeve in such an honest way that you're almost willing to forgive. At least until the end. Forget about this being Gwyneth's Crazy Heart, the similarly themed 2009 film that won Jeff Bridges his Oscar. That was about a washed-up country legend on his last legs, his demons and alcohol abuse sabotaging whatever shot he has left at a comeback on stage and in life. In it alcoholism is actually treated as a disease. Here, you'd think being an alcoholic is kind of fun. If "Bad Blake" is a grizzled warrior than Paltrow's Kelly Canter is a pop diva (that the character's supposedly patterned after Britney Spears isn't surprising). That's an important distinction both in terms of how they're entirely different films and why Paltrow's casting makes sense. When Kelly's latest rehab stint gets cut short by her controlling manager/ husband, James (Tim McGraw) and she's thrown back on stage before even being close to ready, only her "sponsor" Beau Hutton (Garrett Hedlund) realizes what a huge mistake it is. Except he's a lot more than her sponsor and a great singer in his own right who joins Kelly on tour with up- and-coming country starlet Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester), a beauty queen with a big voice but a lot of self-doubt. With her career in turmoil, Kelly knows her days on top are numbered as Chiles inches closer to taking her spot.

The irony is with all the effort that's put in to selling the central storyline of a fading country star being swallowed up by her inner demons, it's the sub-plot involving the supporting characters that soars. We know Paltrow has the perfect look for this and can sing and perform with the best of them, but Kelly's sporadic episodes of self-destruction are so insanely over-the-top it almost becomes irrelevant whether or not she's even capable of playing an addict. This is really just someone who drinks and cries a lot. It's still a good performance, but it's at the service of a story that has a TV movie of the week feel, complete with the "evil manager" who Tim McGraw somehow manages to make human. It's the complete opposite of the saintly husband he played in The Blind Side, another throwback film this closely resembles for about three quarters of its running time. For most of that time its moderate success can be attributed to Leighton Meester and Garrett Hedlund, the real stars of this who deliver performances about five times better than anyone had any reason to expect.

It's a shock Meester and Hedlund are even better country singers than Paltrow but less surprising is how real and well written their scenes together are compared to the goofy central storyline. Meester brings this optimistic, sweet faced innocence to Chiles and shares a great late scene with Paltrow suggesting this movie really should have been about her, and if it was, she'd have no problem carrying it at all. And it probably would have been a lot more interesting. Last seen in the digitized grid of TRON: Legacy, Hedlund (totally unrecognizable) wasn't given the type of role that gave us any indication whether or not he can act. Turns out he can and very well. Watching this you realize he wouldn't really seem that out of place in something grittier like Crazy Heart, as he gives off a cool, tough vibe that recalls a young Penn or Brando. It's a shame he's in this instead but you have to start somewhere and he and Meester walk away in much better positions than when they went in, especially considering the film's failure will unfairly fall on Paltrow.

The director of this, Shana Feste, also made a little movie a couple of years ago called The Greatest which also attempted to lift a familiar soap opera story to a higher level with almost equally mixed results. There is actually a lot to like here. The production value is top notch. The music is great. The acting is strong across the board. And it's definitely not a rip-off of the far superior Crazy Heart, which itself was always falsely accused being a rip-off of The Wrestler. Seemingly forgetting the type of film this is, Feste loses her way in the third act, making a brave but tonally inconsistent decision that puts the focus exactly where it shouldn't be at the worst possible time. It's ironic a movie about a veteran performer in danger of being upstaged by new, younger blood ends up being the story of the film itself. If nothing else, Country Strong is at least one of the more fun bad movies you could accidentally stumble on while flipping through the channels on a slow weeknight. Having actually rented it, I'll have to come up with another excuse.

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