There have been a number of distinguished movies about country music or musicians: "Nashville," "Tender Mercies," "Payday," "Coal Miner's Daughter" come to mind, as well as some of the performances in "Sweet Dreams" and "Crazy Heart." I see no reason to add "Country Strong" to the list, even though Garrett Hedlund gives a performance that is impressive enough to make me keep an eye on his work in the future, and there are a couple of songs I might download from iTunes. But too often the movie rings false, including in its conclusions about fame and love, and it feels more like an excuse to sell soundtracks than a reason to go the cineplex. . . .
The centerpiece of the movie -- the character who most needs to be "country strong" -- is Gwyneth Paltrow's music star, who as the movie begins is getting out of rehab and trying to recover from an emotional disaster. In rehab she has met a young musician (Hedlund) who gives her more emotional support than her manager-husband (Tim McGraw); to help her career, and herself, she wants the singer included on her tour. But her husband is more intrigued by another singer-songwriter, a country Barbie (Leighton Meester) who also knows Hedlund. It should not surprise you that everyone ends up on tour together. Or that things will not work out quite as everyone, or anyone, hopes.
One thing I liked about the movie was that all of its characters are basically decent and well-intentioned. No big villains there. Besides Hedlund (also on view in "TRON: Legacy"), McGraw and Paltrow are good -- although Paltrow is no more than that. She has a meltdown scene that is nothing compared to those by Ronee Blakley in "Nashville" or Sissy Spacek in "Coal Miner's Daughter." Meester is the weak link, but not only because of her acting; the character is poorly written. Indeed, the writing generally kills the movie. Its trope about fame and love is unsupportable in the real world. There were at least two seriously-delivered lines that prompted laughs at the screening I attended.
The characters operate in some parallel country-music universe free of YouTube and Google, with name-dropping generally more appropriate to 20 or more years ago, with the characters taking positions they don't really seem to believe. Hedlund has to speak contemptuously of country-pop while being awestruck by Paltrow, whose big songs are all way on the pop side of country-pop.
Even the CD soundtrack is a bit of a fraud: mostly big namers' versions of songs in the film, along with Paltrow, while a more genuine soundtrack is being offered as iTunes-only supplement to the CD. If I want to hear songs from the movie again, that's where I'm going. I don't expect I will want to see the movie another time.
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