Any doubts as to whether Gwyneth Paltrow can play a contemporary country-music star — a honky-tonk pop princess in the down-home upscale mode of Shania Twain — get dispelled in the opening scene of Country Strong. Kelly Canter (Paltrow), a country superstar, lounges on her stomach in a rehab center, her legs swung provocatively behind her, as she flirts with a handsome orderly (and aspiring singer) named Beau (Garrett Hedlund). Paltrow’s casual drawl sounds right; her face, lovely but unmade-up, looks just worn enough to spell out ”Sexy Survivor of Hard Times”; and when she tries out a fragment of a number Beau has written, it’s in a crystal-clear high voice — a songbird twang.
So far, so good. Then Kelly’s manager/husband, James (Tim McGraw), enters the room and, sensing a rival, drags her out of rehab a month early to jump-start her career. There is, of course, a scandal: The year before, Kelly fell off an arena stage in Dallas while drunk — and lost the baby she was carrying. You’d think that might call for an orchestrated lack of drama in her life, but that’s not what happens in Country Strong. James pushes Kelly into a three-city trial tour, and Beau, at Kelly’s insistence, comes along as her ”protector” and opening act. As if to balance the flirtation equation, James also books Chiles (Leighton Meester), a beauty queen-turned-singer who idolizes Kelly but would love to step into her shoes. It’s no wonder that when Kelly finally goes on stage, she falls apart and can’t perform — a scene that echoes Ronee Blakley’s onstage breakdown in Nashville.
But Country Strong, alas, treats Kelly’s messed-up concert not as the warning sign of disaster it clearly is but as just one more garish moment of overheated country-movie melodrama. Written and directed by Shana Feste, the film keeps throwing things at you: drunk scenes, adultery scenes, All About Eve rise-of-the-young-rival scenes. Yet despite the presence of some appealing actors, none of it quite adds up. The movie stitches together bits and pieces of other, better films, from Sweet Dreams to Crazy Heart, with a minimum of emotional coherence. Scene for scene, it’s not abysmally staged, but it’s a cliché-ridden, heart-on-the-sleeve mess.
Garrett Hedlund, from TRON: Legacy, proves his range here. He’s hunky in a low-down Brad Pitt way, with chops to boot (quick, someone cast him as Jeff Buckley!). His character’s actions, though, make little sense — is Beau out to save Kelly? Woo her? Or woo Chiles? — and, unfortunately, that’s true for Kelly as well. As she grabs another bottle of Smirnoff, we can see that she’s ”wrestling with demons,” but where did those demons come from? The closest thing we get to an explanation is a back-of-the- limo speech about her not being allowed to pierce her ears as a girl. The film’s songs are catchy, Tim McGraw (The Blind Side) has a teddy-bear-cute coolness, and the climactic concert is a doozy — it shows that Gwyneth knows the spangly high-powered joys of country music. Too bad that in Country Strong, she’s too busy acting out the hysterical and mostly nonsensical sorrows. C+