I may have just experienced stage fright. No, not me. But rather the frightening if not cringe-inducing sight of actors, into an impersonation of country music superstars in performance on stage, in the sudsy, bland Country Strong. This less show than tell, artificial in the extreme make-believe musical can best be described as a, well, bad hear day.
It’s clear from the start that a train wreck is in the works, when the only actual country superstar in the production, the Grammy Award winning Tim McGraw, is the only cast member who isn’t going to sing. At all. Which seems awfully suspicious that the decision may have rested on making his co-stars sound to put it mildly, not up to par in comparison. In other words, One doesn’t sing, and The Others shouldn’t. Lip sync, where are you when we need you.
Gwyneth Paltrow, who may have possibly opted for this role of a country diva in order to follow spouse, Coldplay’s Chris Martin, into the music world, is Kelly Canter, a legendary singing sensation, though there’s not a lick of evidence presented to merit this label. Dragged out of alcoholism rehab against doctor’s orders by her ambitious husband James (Tim McGraw), who is more into her career than her charms, Kelly continues to sip on the sly and embarrass herself on stage.
The romantically neglected, down in the dumps diva is also carrying on an affair with Beau Hutton (Garrett Hedlund), an orderly at the rehab center who’s been inappropriately spending lots of time there intent on impressing Kelly with his guitar strumming. And who is unbelievably, then hired by James to serve on the road as combo nursemaid to Kelly and stage act himself.
Then there’s Gossip Girl’s Leighton Meester as Chiles, likewise a hired side show act. A bimbo ex-beauty queen who flubbed her chances when baffled over a contestant question about global warming – whatever, Chiles is obsessed with becoming the next Kelly Canter. Something which is quite apparent to Kelly, and drives her to take a few more sips from her secret stash of booze. Incidentally, Meester is actually the most impressive singer in the film, which does not bode well for Paltrow as the designated biggie here. And by the way, both women have their own albums coming out. Which tends to make this movie feel more like assorted promos, than anything else.
Getting back to the thematic ballad of the tragic singing legend on the skids, which may or may not be based on Britney Spears, there’s not the least sense of an honest emotion, outstanding artistic talent or motivation for destructive behavior that’s convincing. But rather a frustrating outsider-looking-in sense about writer/director Shana Feste (The Greatest) that she’s in way over her head in an alien world.
Now, you may be wondering if I’m just not down with the movie because I’m not a fan of country music. And by way of a disclaimer, I’m not. But a decently crafted story shouldn’t require a strictly musical fan base audience. And in the case of Country Strong, I strongly suspect that it wouldn’t have made much of a difference.
1 [out of 4] stars