Friday, January 7, 2011

Country Strong: Laughably weak

Country Strong (2010) • View trailer for Country Strong
2.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for alcohol abuse, mild sensuality and dramatic content
By Derrick Bang

Call this one four characters in search of a coherent storyline.

Despite being able to draw engaging performances from her cast, writer/director Shana Feste hasn’t the faintest idea how to construct a lucid narrative. Country Strong is a mess; we’re dumped into the middle of an ongoing crisis, never given any back-story to justify the situation, and subsequently saddled with enough overwrought melodrama to satisfy several TV soap operas.
Kelly Canter (Gwyneth Paltrow), looking to boost her rather calamitous public
image, agrees to a photo-op at a children's leukemia ward. What could have
been played as a cynical bit of celebrity damage control instead becomes warm
and magical: one of this overly clichéd film's few "real" moments.

Characters behave erratically, their ill-defined allegiances to each other switching at a moment’s notice; dialogue is forced and tin-eared. People simply don’t behave this way: not with each other, and not in any sort of professional setting. Far too often, a given scene – or confrontation – seems to exist solely because Feste wanted to toss in another complication.

The result is cliché-ridden in the extreme, these four people responding less to familiar human emotions, and more in the manner of marionettes being jerked about by a rather inept puppeteer.

It’s all rather sad, particularly since we frequently want to like these people.

Then, too, familiarity truly does breed contempt. We’ve seen this story before, and quite recently; we’re still savoring the memory of Jeff Bridges bringing home a well-deserved Academy Award for his take on the “country superstar behaving badly” scenario, in last year’s Crazy Heart. While I can appreciate Gwyneth Paltrow’s attraction to the material – an opportunity to display her singing chops, while also delving into the juicy acting potential of such a troubled character – it would have been nice if she’d waited for a better script.

Paltrow’s Kelly Canter is introduced at a posh rehab clinic, where she’s trying to recover from a very public meltdown roughly a year back, when too much alcohol led to a catastrophe during a stadium concert in Dallas. It won’t do any good to wonder why Kelly started drinking too much; we’re never given that information. We only know what her husband, James (Tim McGraw), keeps telling us: She used to be tough as nails, and now she’s “fragile.”

James spends the entire film professing his love for her, and admiration for her talent, and yet his actions often suggest otherwise; he hauls her out of rehab too early, in order to mount a new tour that builds – after only two “try-out” performances – to a shot at redemption in the same Dallas arena. Despite knowing that she shouldn’t drink, particularly in tandem with her volatile quantity of (unspecified) meds, James repeatedly leaves her alone, or assumes that friends and colleagues will properly monitor her behavior.

At one point, James’ inattention leads to one of those scandalous spectacles in a dive bar, with only hours to go before the second of Kelly’s come-back concerts.

Uh-huh. At about this point, our eyes have rolled so often, they’re in danger of coming unscrewed.

This kind of sloppy “supervision” might have played back in the 1950s, but we’re living in the 21st century, when everybody knows that addicts must be scrutinized 24/7. We’re simply not willing to believe such idiotic behavior on James’ part ... or, alternatively, we’re left to wonder about his possible ulterior motives. But no, that doesn’t seem to be the case either; McGraw, always a personable actor, put persuasive despair into his portrait of a man who desperately wishes that his wife could once again become the woman he fell in love with.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Feste actually begins her film with a lively, small-potatoes concert by country music natural Beau Hutton (Garrett Hedlund), whose easy facility with an engaging, hook-laden song matches the aw-shucks charm he displays both on and off stage. Beau is a nice, decent guy; we know this both from Hedlund’s amiable, charismatic performance ... and also because a few other characters repeatedly tell us as much. (Feste, it should be added, apparently doesn’t trust us viewers to follow her admittedly random storyline, so she frequently resorts to said-bookisms.)

Beau likes modest honky-tonk venues, but fellow performer Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester, quite believable as a naïve ingénue with stars in her eyes) is far more ambitious, and has her sights set on The Big Time. Alas, Chiles tends to succumb to stage fright, and we agonize through her first flop-sweat freeze-up until Beau, ever the gentleman, returns to the stage and “rescues” her by fabricating a duet on the spot.

Beau and Chiles apparently know each other, perhaps from “the circuit,” although it’s difficult to image how such an untrained young woman could have survived even this long. Beau also seems contemptuous of her, despite his gallant act; we can’t help wondering why. (Again, answers there are none.)

When not plucking his guitar on a stage, Beau’s “real” job is at the same rehab clinic that Kelly is about to depart. We’re told that he is her “sponsor,” an odd choice of words, when James arrives to take her home. Not much later, we learn that Beau and Kelly are having an affair, and have done for awhile. Not unreasonable, given Kelly’s needy state, and it explains Beau’s protective attitude, and the prickly wariness that exists between him and James.

Odd, then, that James should select Beau as one of the opening acts for Kelly’s comeback tour. Odder still – what are the chances? – that James also would snatch Chiles as an additional opener, after somehow having been impressed with her near stillborn performance at the aforementioned honky-tonk.

Hey, James sees “potential” in the young woman.

And he’s obviously right, since Chiles makes a positively amazing breakthrough the next time she performs: no trace of the paralyzing stage fright. A modern psychological miracle!


Then, too, we have to wonder why James would book a gorgeous young wannabe whose very presence can’t help but increase Kelly’s self-doubt and paranoia. Once again, this calls James’ motives into question – particularly when Chiles hits a studio to record a song that Kelly really, really wanted – but Feste’s script simply never dabbles in such possible intrigue, nor does it stray into All About Eve territory. As we’re repeatedly told – sledge-hammer time – James loves Kelly, and wants what’s best for her.

OK, I guess, if Feste says so...

Well, no. Of course not.

The subsequent interpersonal dynamics become difficult to sort. Beau obviously loves Kelly, and wants to look out for her ... but, wait, then decides that maybe he should stop seeing her. Chiles thinks that Beau is a self-centered jerk ... but, whoops, she also seems to find him attractive. But she’ll do anything for her career, so does that include sleeping with James? And would he take advantage, if such an offer were made? A few key scenes leave that possibility irritatingly ambiguous.

Oh, and I’ve already commented on Beau’s initial contempt for Chiles, which doesn’t seem to soften for awhile ... but, wait, because this is a movie, and because Hedlund and Meester are our Two Adorable Secondary Leads, they’re supposed to fall in love.

I suppose.

Then there’s the matter of the tiny baby bird Kelly rescues, just as she’s leaving the clinic, which James subsequently cares for. He later returns the bird – a cute little thing, tucked away in a small box – to his wife, and our assumption is that taking responsibility for this small creature will be good therapy for Kelly. But then “script developments” intrude, and we never see the bird again.

All right, that’s just ridiculous.

This carelessness with crucial details is unfortunate, because every now and again, Feste makes everything work. Kelly’s visit to a children’s leukemia ward is a charming sequence, all the more powerful for the depth of Paltrow’s performance. It’s one of this film’s few “real” moments, and the scene speaks volumes about Kelly, and her relationship with James. We see Kelly as both fragile and strong – the duality of her character, as Feste obviously intends during the rest of the film – and, for a brief moment, all the magic is present.

Paltrow also delivers plenty of rock-star wattage during the one time when Kelly cuts loose on stage; the songs are chart-topping infectious, and this scene’s editing – Carol Littleton and Conor O’Neill, take a bow – adds to the excitement.

All too little, too late. Despite the considerable good will built by Hedlund and Paltrow in particular, we simply never care ... mostly because we’re never sure what to care about.

Finally, Feste’s already maladroit screenwriting achieves high farce when she can’t figure out how to end her film. It’s true: This picture builds to what feels like a good stopping-point ... but no, then there’s an epilogue, with another good conclusion ... and then another ... and then another! (The most ludicrous one possible, it must be added.)

I know you like to sing, Gwyneth, but if Country Strong was the best big-screen offer available, you’d be better off trying to expand your guest stint on television’s Glee.

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