Saturday 31 December 2011

Movie Review: Country Strong (2010)

A musical drama in the vein of The Rose and A Star Is Born, Country Strong hits a few high notes but also offers up some blank measures containing little that is memorable.

Country music superstar Kelly Canter (Gwyneth Paltrow) is released prematurely from her latest stint in rehab. Her husband / manager James (Tim McGraw) is eager to get her back on stage to try and salvage her career and reputation, damaged due to an abortion caused by excessive drinking. To open for Kelly on a quick tour of Texas, James selects up-and-coming Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester), a former beauty queen with potential but little experience, and rough-and-ready Beau Hutton (Garrett Hedlund), a down-to-earth singer who prefers the realism of Saturday night performances at the local watering hole to the glamour of performing in packed arenas.

James wants Beau to make sure that Kelly stays away from the bottle to get through the tour, but Beau and Kelly are already entangled in a relationship that prevents them from acting rationally. Beau also thinks little of Chiles' talent, but gradually she proves herself to him. With Kelly struggling to pull herself together, Beau and Chiles emerge as the new darlings of the country music scene, and James has to struggle to save his marriage and source of income.

Country Strong deserves recognition for steering clear of obvious endings. Not much goes right for Kelly Canter throughout the movie, and it would have been most predictable to reward her with a promise of a better future. Similarly, Chiles and Beau find the country music world at their feet and clamouring for more as events unfold, and the requisite denouement is to lavish them with increased grand adulation as the credits roll. Writer and director Shana Feste avoids the facile crowd-pleasing ending, and stretches instead for echoes of the heartbreak that lies at the core of every country music song.

But Country Strong does struggle with a long, saggy middle. Once the four main characters are introduced and established early, the film lurches along re-emphasizing what has already been said. Developments are stunted and slow, and the performances mixed.

Garrett Hedlund leans on Beau to carry the musical component for most of the movie with a series of concert performances mixed in with a pre-set angry-at-the-world stare.  The wait for Gwyneth Paltrow's Kelly to belt out some emotion-filled music is unnecessarily long. Leighton Meester allows Chiles Stanton to go through the film with a coquettish look-at-me-I'm-a-Southern-belle batting of the eyelids, trying to attract the attention of any male in the general vicinity. Tim McGraw's James Canter is only interested in his wife as a source of income, and his eyes carry the desperate intensity of a man frantically trying to milk the last few dollars from a struggling venture.

Country Strong features passable music, and a story that, if not realistic, has reasonable approximations of reality. The film sometimes stumbles, rarely soars, but never falls down either, and most surprisingly impresses with an ending more dour than triumphant.

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