I don’t like country music. My musical tastes lie somewhere between gangsta rap and a little-known genre called “pirate metal,” so the honky-tonk bar tones and sappy, tongue-in-cheek, cowboy romance lyrics of country music aren’t really my bag. Bear that in mind when I tell you that the best part about “Country Strong” is the original soundtrack.
Country songs generally tell meaningful stories, so I was surprised that “Country Strong” had such a weak one. It revolves around Kelly Canter (Gwyneth Paltrow), an alcoholic country star being taken out of rehab a month early by her manager/husband, James (Tim McGraw). This pisses off her secret boyfriend and aspiring country musician Beau (Garrett Hedlund — complete with facial hair patchier than Tom Sawyer’s overalls), who tries to keep her from going back to the bottle. Meanwhile, a young country pop singer named Chiles (Leighton Meester) gets to go on tour with Kelly after her manager sees her sing on stage with Beau. The stress of being on tour so soon after rehab, being stuck with a younger competitor, the love triangle between her two male supporters and, of course, the alcoholism cause problems on- and off-stage for Kelly and crew.
My mother loves country music. She also loves watching movies where she can predict dialogue during dramatic pauses because she believes it validates her intelligence and makes her look cool when she’s watching with other people. As sad as it is that I saw this movie alone, I am at least glad that I didn’t see it with her. She would have called the movie out on every single slice of melodramatic screenwriting, rolling her eyes so much that it would make her as nauseous as I felt when I saw this film. The film’s predictability pauses only when the characters make unrealistic decisions and make blindingly obvious observations like: “The pills are only dangerous if she mixes them with alcohol!”
Kelly’s alcoholism is so bipolar that real alcoholics will watch this film and wonder how she got an off switch. She’ll be fine one moment, then crying and squirming and reaching for bottles that are surprisingly easy for her to get her hands on. You’d think that people working on tour with a recovering alcoholic would hide the booze a little better. Paltrow plays the wild, unstable star with the charisma of a screaming toddler in a quiet restaurant. Her costars respond with varying levels of compassion. Her manager treats her like a burden, which is ironic because he brings it on himself, and insists to everyone watching the train wreck that everything is fine. Beau tries to take care of her but gets bored with her problems and frequently goes off to flirt with Chiles. Leighton Meester gives Chiles a charming Georgia peach personality, making her and Beau the only interesting characters to watch in the film.
The film’s saving graces come during the on-stage performances of Kelly, Beau and Chiles. Shana Feste’s immersive direction in these scenes allows the viewer to understand the balls that it takes to perform in front of thousands in a stadium (or even twenty drunks in a local bar). These scenes — backed up by the great country soundtrack — will certainly please any Alan Jackson and Shania Twain fans that just want to hear some good tunes. However, they can search for these clips on YouTube and save themselves from the ridiculously over-the-top off-stage drama that these poor actors must play out. The music is country, the performances are strong, but the story just ain’t. I’ll go back to my pirate metal now.