The bland ole soap opry
See Gwyneth Paltrow start sobbing onstage in the middle of a song.
See Gwyneth Paltrow have another emotional breakdown in a bathroom stall.
See Gwyneth Paltrow totally lose it again in the shower of an RV after one of her precious bottles of booze gets smashed into tiny shards.
That may be a gross oversimplification of what happens in "Country Strong," the story of a Nashville diva (Paltrow) attempting to relaunch her career after a very public stint in rehab. But it's an accurate description of how it feels to watch this disjointed drama filled with one-dimensional characters and melodrama so Lifetime movie-esque that it careens into unintentional comedy.
Paltrow, under-served by the material at almost every turn, pours every drop of twang and tears she has into the role of Kelly Canter, a country star of the couture-meets-cowboy-boots variety whose drinking problem has led to a disastrous stage fall, a terminated pregnancy, a rupture in her marriage to manager James (Tim McGraw) and that aforementioned decision to seek treatment for alcoholism. But now, at least in her husband's eyes, she's all better and ready to get back on the road for a trio of high-profile comeback dates.
Of course, she ain't goin' nowhere without scruffy-hot singer-songwriter Beau Hutton (Garrett Hedlund), whom she, um, befriended in rehab. Meanwhile, James won't put Kelly onstage unless Chiles Stanton ("Gossip Girl's" Leighton Meester), a perky beauty queen who dreams of being the next Carrie Underwood, is an opening act. And with that, the stage is set for soap opera-ish romantic entanglements, jealous spats, the swilling of vodka straight from the bottle and performances of pleasant country tunes that are just generic enough to ensure they'll be completely forgotten until you hear them while waiting to have your teeth cleaned.
Writer-director Shana Feste, who made her major motion picture debut with 2009's loss-of-a-child drama "The Greatest," should have let this be Paltrow's movie. With tighter direction and a stronger script - one that didn't force Paltrow to say things like "I've never lived on a star but it sure looks like fun" - this could have been an unflinchingly honest portrait of how fame and addiction transformed the once brassy "Belle of Bristol, Tennessee" into a fragile bird of a human being, one who, lest you miss the point, actually carries around a fragile baby quail in a box. (Don't ask.) Instead, it's just a lot of histrionics set to a jangly soundtrack.
Paltrow isn't in the spotlight enough because Feste focuses much of her attention on Beau and Chiles, who exude a certain charm, thanks to Hedlund and Meester, but aren't complex or interesting enough to carry so much of the movie. The camera makes a particular point of luxuriating on Hedlund's easy grin and the cowboy twinkle in his eye, practically daring the audience not to find him dead sexy. (By the third time Hedlund croons, "I'm gonna wear you down," the opening line of the film's oft-repeated love song "Give In to Me," it's clear he has made good on that promise.)
Given the similarity of the subject matter, it's almost impossible not to compare "Country Strong" to "Crazy Heart," the study of hard-drinking country musician Bad Blake that earned Jeff Bridges an Academy Award last year. Where that film was all indie grit and guitar blisters, this one is all pop sheen and lip gloss. "Crazy Heart" wasn't perfect, but it rang true, while "Country Strong" rarely does.
To put it another way, when Kelly Canter has a few too many before an important gig, she wobbles backstage and barfs daintily into a trash can while Blair from "Gossip Girl" helpfully holds her long blond hair.
But when Bad Blake knocks back a few before a show? He still goes onstage, then walks off mid-set, throws up next to a dumpster in an alley, shakes it off and regains his place at the mike.
Now that's country strong.
rÂ½ PG-13. At area theaters. Contains scenes of a mild sexual nature and thematic elements involving alcohol abuse. 112 minutes.