A year after Jeff Bridges won an Oscar for playing a down-and-out drunk of a country music star, Gwenyth Paltrow angles to win at the same game with Country Strong, a movie that is unfortunately more music video than it is awards contender.
In Country Strong, Paltrow plays disgraced music country superstar Kelly Canter, who months earlier fell off stage in a drunken haze, five months pregnant. Having checked out of rehab early, her husband and manager (Tim McGraw) puts her right back on the road, threatening to derail her permanently.
Looking to help her is up-and-upcoming singer Beau Hutton (Garrett Hedlund), the only person who actually seems to care for her wellbeing. But his attention is distracted by young and beautiful Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester), who is being groomed to become the next Kelly.
Written and directed by Shana Feste, there is no doubt that Country Strong is trying to be the next Crazy Heart, and in at least one beat it is. Crazy Heart was a good-but-not-great movie, but it featured a career revitalizing performance by Jeff Bridges. In Country Strong, the best part about the movie is also the acting.
Gwenyth Paltrow is excellent, even if her character is, in many ways, a supporting one. Despite some of the film's pitfalls, Feste does a good job of creating two-faced characters; no one in the movie is perfect and all have their demons. Paltrow takes full advantage of this and turns in one of the best acting performances of the year.
Unfortunately, the movie is too soap opera-ish for Oscar voters to care. But more on that in a minute.
The real star of the movie is Garrett Hedlund, who, coincidentally, was also the real star of Tron: Legacy with Jeff Bridges. I've read some reviews where he's been criticized for his performances this winter, but I see it a different way: Hedlund has proven that he's leading man material and can handle a range of roles. Expect to see a lot more of him in the future.
Tim McGraw is also quite good and actually is given one of the more complex characters of the movie, though he's clearly intended to be a supporting player. Feste needed to dwell on his conflicting interests a little more. Leighton Meester is also very good, though her character is the least interesting.
The acting is excellent, but that won't matter much to award voters because Country Strong through and through is not an awards contender. It wants to be, but it is too fascinated by love stories and country music and all the typical troubles singers seem to face in movies (drugs, alcohol, sex).
Though Crazy Heart wasn't a great movie, it balanced its focus between the country music and the more important stuff going on behind the scenes. Country Strong has three times as much drama and seemingly a hundred times more music.
The result: a very long series of music videos with dramatic scenes to fill the gaps.
For what it is, there's nothing wrong with that. Country Strong is entertaining and the music is good (and no, I absolutely am not a country music fan), and if you go in expecting that and nothing more, then that should be good enough.
But an awards contender is what it wanted to be and it is not, which is why critics are attacking it so brutally.
Country Strong has plenty of flaws, but if you can accept those and take the film at face value, it can be an entertaining ride. The acting is excellent and the music moving, and as a romantic drama it is effective. Still, it's clearly Oscar bait, even if the fish aren't biting.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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