By Josh Rottenberg
December 22, 2010 at 12:00 PM EST
Paramount Pictures

The first reviews are starting to trickle in for Gwyneth Paltrow’s country-music melodrama Country Strong, which opened in just two theaters today, and if they’re any indication of how the film will fare with audiences, there may be some achy-breaky hearts when it goes into wide release on January 7. For now, Country Strong—which stars Paltrow as Kelly Canter, an alcoholic country superstar trying to make a comeback after a stint in rehab—is only playing in Los Angeles and Franklin, Tennessee, and hasn’t been screened for EW’s critics (stay tuned for Owen Gleiberman’s official review in our next issue). But the handful of critics who have weighed in so far have, for the most part, not been overly kind: “full of clichés,” “thin characters,” “predictable,” “derivative,” “thoroughly unconvincing,” “a chicken-fried Valley of the Dolls,” “wallows in about every country chestnut imaginable,” “sillier—and more tone-deaf—than Paltrow’s advice website, GOOP.” Ouch. Then again, the largely mixed reviews sound almost like hosannas compared with the heaps of scorn critics are piling on Little Fockers, which is pulling in a paltry 8% positive reviews on Rottentomatoes.com.

I caught Country Strong earlier today at a nearly empty theater in Los Angeles, and while I’m admittedly not quite the target audience, I have been a fan in the past of country-music films like Coal Miner’s Daughter and Crazy Heart. This is not Coal Miner’s Daughter or Crazy Heart. It’s hard to fault the cast—Paltrow and co-stars Tim McGraw, Garrett Hedlund, and Leighton Meester do their best to wring some life out of the material they’re given. And there are some well-crafted, if ultimately fairly forgettable, songs in the film, which are gamely performed by Paltrow and company (though it seems odd that the one genuine singer in the cast, McGraw, doesn’t sing at all). The trouble is, the characters—Paltrow’s fragile songbird, McGraw’s dour manager, Hedlund’s hunky singer-songwriter, and Meester’s spunky would-be country star—are so undercooked and one-dimensional, they can’t support the heavy and sometimes unintentionally campy melodrama they’re asked to bear. If you’re wondering whether Paltrow has the pipes to make a credible country-pop star, though, she absolutely does. If anything, she should have been allowed more opportunities to show off her performing chops—she spends so much screen time sobbing and brooding and drunkenly melting down, we hardly get more than a snippet here and there of her singing until close to the end of the movie, and by then it’s too little, too late.

What about you? Have any of you had a chance to see Country Strong yet? If so, what did you think? If not, how interested are you in catching it?

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