Well-cast (Country Strong a (tone-deaf melodrama
 

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posted Friday, January 7, 2011 - Volume 39 Issue 01

Well-cast (Country Strong a (tone-deaf melodrama
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN Contributing Writer

Country Strong
Opening January 7


Country music superstar Kelly Cantor (Gwyneth Paltrow) has seen better days. Less than a year ago during a concert in Dallas, she was so drunk she fell off the stage, causing a miscarriage of her unborn child and leaving her marriage to promoter and manager James (Tim McGraw) in a state of limbo.

Unsure if she's ready for the road, Kelly is thrust out of rehab against the advice of her supposed sponsor, as well as aspiring songwriter and singer Beau Hutton (Garrett Hedlund), and put directly back into the spotlight. James also brings beauty-queen-turned-country-singer Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester) out with them, using both her and Beau as opening acts in hopes they'll help steady his still-struggling wife's confidence and keep her away from the bottle.

Country Strong is not a good movie. As much as I was enamored with writer and director Shana Feste's debut motion picture The Greatest, this one has me so far down in the dumps that my affinity for that Susan Sarandon/Carey Mulligan/Pierce Brosnan weeper has been seriously damaged. As musical-driven melodramas go, the film is a borderline disaster, and if not for the excellence of the songs themselves and for the abilities of all four actors, I'm not sure I could have sat through it start to finish.

I like that Feste is trying to make something serious. I like that she's sort of crossed elements of The Last Weekend, Tender Mercies, All About Eve, Leaving Las Vegas, and Crazy Heart. I appreciate the fact that she trusts her actors to make even the more maudlin aspects of the film resonate in some sort of personal way. She's an actor's director who wants to tell big, emotionally driven tales of heartache and sacrifice the likes of which many filmmakers shy away from, and for all of that I can't help but applaud her.

But she has to do better than this. Country Strong starts on a bad note and then proceeds to go downhill from there. No one is actually playing a character so much as they're playing a character type. The script gives them very little room to breathe and evolve, making all of them sadly one-dimensional no matter how hard the actors try to make things otherwise. This film is as predictable as a flock of buzzards hovering over a rotting carcass; you just know they're going to devour the remains, the only question is when.

'When' is the major problem here. I had minor pacing issues with The Greatest, but they're nothing compared to Feste's tortoise-like tempo directing this. The movie slogs from scene to scene with no urgency, no energy, making 110-minutes feel like a mind-numbing mental marathon the likes of which even championship-level chess players would find far too taxing.

The truly awful thing is that the movie has an awesome lineup of original songs sung beautifully by Paltrow, Hedlund, and Meester. On top of that, all three actors dive headfirst into their respective characters in a way that had me thinking that somehow they would find a way to rescue the picture from mediocrity and at least raise it to the level of a schmaltzy music-driven guilty pleasure (a la Burlesque). Hedlund, in particular, is a strikingly bold and masculine presence, oozing sensuality and is the only one who appears to have a pulse from first frame to last, all of which is even more surprising considering he was such a humongous non-presence as the heroic star of TRON: Legacy.

Any chance the movie had to get a pass from me, however, is undone during the final 15 minutes. Everything happens as we expect it to, and the chance for redemption on Kelly's part is finally given center stage. Then Feste decides to take things in an outlandish and mawkish direction that doesn't work at all. This finish to our heroine's story isn't earned, isn't justified, and I didn't buy what happened next. Worse, the director stages all this with such didactic solemnity I felt like I was getting smacked in the head by a six-string guitar, the last scenes a bludgeoning series of body blows more suited to The Fighter or True Grit.

There is an enjoyable, somewhat moving melodrama hiding within Country Strong. Cast perfectly, featuring a memorable assortment of songs and trying to be an adult alternative to much of the prepubescent drivel taking up space in the multiplex, I appreciate much of what Feste is trying to do. But a sour note is a sour note, and the director hits a never-ending series of them, making this cinematic concert one that only a scant, tone-deaf few will be singing the praises of.



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