[Screen It]

(2010) (Gwyneth Paltrow, Tim McGraw) (PG-13)

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Drama: After being released from rehab a month early, a country music star must deal with her various personal demons while going on tour with her husband-manager, her singer-songwriter lover, and a young upstart who might ultimately upstage her.
Kelly Canter (GWYNETH PALTROW) is a big country music star whose alcohol problems not only lead to her arrest at a concert in Dallas, but also a fall that resulted in the miscarriage of her pregnancy in its fifth month. While in rehab, she's been getting support, help and more from singer-songwriter Beau Hutton (GARRETT HEDLUND) who's been posing as her sponsor rather than her secret lover that he really is.

Her husband-manager, James (TIM McGRAW), doesn't think much of Beau, and thus pays no heed to the younger man's complaints when James gets Kelly out of rehab a month early. He wants to get her back on stage on her tour, and thinks young beauty queen turned country singer Chiles Stanton (LEIGHTON MEESTER) should be her opening act, rather than Beau who Kelly wants as her introduction.

As they hit the road for the tour, Kelly must contend with her personal demons, all while carrying on her affair with Beau and being concerned that Chiles might upstage and maybe even replace her, not only on the charts, but also in her husband's heart.

OUR TAKE: 3.5 out of 10
For many a non country music fan (and even for some who are), the running joke about some of the genre's songs is that they're silly "woe is me" ditties about cheatin' spouses, achy-breaky hearts, missin' dogs and/or whiskey. Granted, some have included one or more of those topics, but before anyone calls me a music snob who looks down on country, I grew up on the music.

Yes, I preferred the rock 'n roll of the 1960s and '70s as a kid, but my mom listened to Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn and those artists of that era (when "classic country" didn't need that modifier) on a big console AM radio while doing housework, and I imagine I saw every episode of "Hee-Haw" ever produced. While I like some of the newer material -- that my mom says isn't true country, and she's right -- I still prefer the sounds of the classic songs.

With that as my background, I went into "Country Strong" with an open mind. Like 2009's "Crazy Heart," it's a work of fiction rather than a biopic along the lines of "Walk the Line," "Sweet Dreams" or "Coal Miner's Daughter." And like Jeff Bridges' flick, it's about a country singer who's squandered their talent via the bottle.

Sadly, that's where the similarities end, as this flick is bedeviled by a lousy script and all of its accompanying baggage, and it's highly unlikely Blythe Danner and Bruce Paltrow's daughter will be following Dorothy and Lloyd Bridge's son into the Oscar ring for her work here. While Gwyneth Paltrow can sing (as previously proved in "Duets" and on TV's "Glee"), she can't overcome the script and its hoary clichés, unbelievable character behavior, and inability to figure out how best and when to end.

As written and directed by Shana Feste, the film sports an all-too familiar tale of an artist who's damaged her career through substance abuse. Beyond that happening in real life and across various vocations (music, film, TV, sports, etc.), it's also a fairly common story in movies about such folks.

Accordingly, the film's first strike is lack of novelty, something that could be overcome or at least somewhat mitigated by putting some sort of fresh spin on the familiar material. Alas, Feste isn't up for that, and instead trots out the usual storyline suspects as if we'd never experienced them before. Had this been a true-life biopic that was recreating the truth, that could be acceptable for sticking with the facts. But as a piece of fiction, it's simply inexcusable.

Beyond the troubled star (Paltrow) and all of the trappings of her addiction (gee, do you think she's going to get drunk right before having to go on stage?), there's the young and pretty upstart (Leighton Meester) who has the veteran rattled in terms of potentially being replaced. The latter clashes with the pure country singer-songwriter (Garrett Hedlund) who'd rather play small honky-tonks than big concert venues, while he spars with the star's husband/manager (Tim McGraw) who pulls his wife from rehab a month early so that she can go back on tour.

The fact that the star and singer-songwriter are having an affair, while the husband/manager flirts with the upstart when she's not bedding the singer-songwriter and more is supposed to add layers of complexity and emotional complication to the story. Instead, all of that just gets silly to the point that viewers at our advance screening were chuckling at the developments, along with the guilty parties suddenly being all upset that they were being cheated on as well.

As all of that piles up, such occurrences and then the overall film end up bordering on the precipice of soap opera melodrama and related histrionics. Sadly, Feste doesn't seem to notice or care, nor does she just put the pedal to the metal and let the entire offering segue into pure camp. At least that would have made this a guilty pleasure.

As it stands, it's worth a few chuckles here and there, but then just keeps treading through the clichéd material, never knowing when to conclude. And the finale, while true to some real-life, self-destructive behavior, will likely turn off many a country music fan, especially since it somewhat comes out of the blue (in terms of what immediately precedes it) and belies the flick's title.

While it contains a few nice moments (Paltrow visiting a young leukemia patient and making up a song about him on the fly), decent performances from Hedlund and Meester, and some okay but not terribly memorable songs, "Country Strong" makes the tragic mistake of heading down a familiar country road filled with too many frame-bending, tire-flattening and teeth jarring potholes. It rates as a 3.5 out of 10.

Reviewed January 4, 2011 / Posted January 7, 2011

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