Giving Gwyneth Paltrow her first lead role since 2005’s Proof, Country Strong may stride about in cowboy boots, but it walks a familiar plotline.
Country music star Kelly Canter (Paltrow) is trying to make a fresh-fromrehab comeback under the direction of husband/manager James (real-life country star Tim McGraw), with possible protégé Beau (Garrett Hedlund) reluctantly jumping from honkytonks to concert arenas and possible replacement Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester) snapping at Canter’s heels.
So that’s one part A Star Is Born, one part All About Eve, a dash of Nashville, add some pedal steel guitar and stir...
Writer/director Shana Feste does a respectable job of shaping the characters. But if the people are complex, their world certainly isn’t – the film’s concertinaed timeline means that the comeback tour is a mere three cities, while Chiles and Beau’s opening sets are about one song long. It’s as if Feste is leaning on the fast-forward button to get to the melodrama.
Juggling self-pity, rage and redemption, Paltrow’s fine, even if she does a better job of selling the songs than the story.
Hedlund, meanwhile, gets to show more of a human side than in Tron: Legacy (flannel and cowboy hats suit him better than spandex and neon helmets); and like Gwynnie, he brings sizzle and soul to the mic.
Trouble is, the concert performances are the most exciting things on screen. The rest of the film is devoted to clunky discussions of feelings (brace yourself for Paltrow projecting her mother issues onto a quail in a cigar box).
Much like Kelly herself, Country Strong comes alive when singing but hits the doldrums offstage.
A decade after Duets, a singing Gwyn proves she can still reach the high notes. Shame the melodrama plays strained and unoriginal.