Or, because one might not have the confidence to plunk this bit of bourbon-flavored cotton candy down on the counter at the Newbury Comics, perhaps this is more of an ad for the iTunes downloads of Gwyneth Shania-ing out some country-pop hits. Because the songs here, while not classics, are stick-in-your-head little numbers that sound like they’d be fun to get tipsy to on some warm summer day.
Kelly Canter (Paltrow) is a country singer occupying something like a Faith-Hill-ish place in the musical world (superstardom with some pop songs and some country bonafides). But in her personal life, Kelly is more a Lindsay Lohan — she is in rehab and had a career-jeopardizing “incident” in Dallas that we slowly find out all the gruesome details of. For this reason, her husband and manager James Canter (Tim McGraw, real-life husband of Faith Hill, both of whom appear on the soundtrack) is eager to get her back on the road. But she’s clearly not ready — even rehab facility orderly Beau Hutton (Garrett Hedlund) knows that. Beau is hanging out singing with Kelley when James comes to get her. He’s my sponsor, Kelly tells James — a statement which he seems willing to believe for a while.
Whatever else Beau is, he’s a pretty good singer — a country crooner with more twang than polish. Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester), a rising star James wants to bring on tour with Kelly, is almost all polish — “country Barbie,” Beau calls her. But she’s still a bit scared in front of crowds and not quite confident enough in her music or her persona. So James brings both — Chiles, the girl we suspect he’s lusting over, and Beau, the boy we suspect Kelly is having an affair with. And add to this that Kelly is not quite rehabbed — still fragile over “Dallas” and not sure of herself with her husband or her fans.
If you were going to remake Crazy Heart with a female lead for, say, Lifetime, I think it would turn out something like Country Strong. There’s a lot more soap operatics here than in the Jeff Bridges vehicle of last year. There are nice touches to Paltrow’s character — she looks like the weary kind even if she doesn’t quite seem like she could sing about it with the grit of a Bad Blake. And the movie actually does make a few stabs at showing off the different flavors of country music. But by the movie’s end, I felt more entertained than transported. The movie shows off everyone’s cowboy-hat accents and gives lots of love to performance scenes, but it doesn’t let the story unfold in a genuine way. Big fights, big tears we get, but just as the small moments between Paltrow and McGraw, for example, start to blossom, the movie cuts to another scene of rock-star outrageousness. The movie ends with a rushed, everything-tied-with-a-bow finale act that reminds you, in case you started to think otherwise, just how hammy everything you’ve just seen really was.
Having said all that, Country Strong is still good lightweight fun that would make for a solid rental or even a nice in-theater matinee-priced diversion. C+
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements involving alcohol abuse and some sexual content. Written and directed by Shana Feste, Country Strong is an hour and 52 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by Screen Gems.