Film Review: Country Strong

To quote the great Johnny Cash, “Country boy, you got a shaggy dog.”

Just how similar is Country Strong to last year’s indie hit Crazy Heart? Both movies are steeped in the milieu of country music, borrowing their titles from the original songs associated with their lead characters, who both happen to be alcoholic performers struggling to make a comeback but actually seeking, yes, redemption.

On the other hand (should we say, on the flip side?), the movies couldn’t be more different in style and substance—Country Strong a get-out-your-handkerchief melodrama featuring a duet of love stories (one sappy, one happy), Crazy Heart a bittersweet romance that, despite too-pat narrative devices, tries to keep it real. The films appear to tap the same demographic, but the producers know too well their respective audiences: You won’t sell many Carrie Underwood t-shirts at a Jamey Johnson concert.

Jeff Bridges won a much-deserved Oscar for his portrayal of “Bad” Blake and Gwyneth Paltrow might well have garnered a nomination for Best Actress as Kelly Canter had Country Strong been, well, stronger. She has (to lay it on thick) a strong singing voice, affects a believable (if generic) Southern accent, and strikes the right balance of Tennessee woods and Westwood tease. Writer and director Shana Feste, however, smothers her perfectly fine performance with so much red-eyed gravy we can’t take Kelly, or any of her characters, seriously: They all seem to have walked out of a George Jones lyric. James, Kelly’s husband and manager (played by country star Tim McGraw in the film’s only non-singing role), is an egocentric bully or a vulnerable, long-suffering caretaker, depending on Feste’s narrative needs. The film’s other couple, rising stars Beau Hutton and Chiles Stanton (played by Garrett Hedlund, currently seen in TRON: Legacy, and Leighton Meester, of television’s “Gossip Girl”) fare better, unburdened by the confused backstory mucking up the lives of their celebrity betters. In fact, Beau and Chiles, despite their annoying names, unintentionally upstage the headliners.

Here’s the story in three chords: Kelly, recovering from her breakdown at a rehab spa, falls for orderly Beau, who happens to be an aspiring songwriter. But James signs her out before her treatment is complete, believing his wife will get well faster on the road (or at least be able to cover the hospital bills). James also wants his latest protégé, Texas beauty-queen Chiles, along for the three-city tour. Kelly insists upon Beau as her opening act. Why not both? And why not turn these disparate wannabes, the cocky Beau and stage-spooked Chiles, into star-crossed lovers in stark contrast to the self-destructing Kelly and James?

To be fair to Feste, the script is more nuanced than the above précis, at times clever, and Hedlund and Meester are attractive actors (as is McGraw, who has limited range but plenty of poise). But she could do with less cowbell. Too many scenes seem written solely to move the plot forward, the whole clunky apparatus lubricated with increasing quantities of tears. It’s heartwarming to watch emotionally broken Kelly transform a staged visit with a young fan suffering from leukemia into a genuine triumph of spirit; it’s cloying when this affecting moment conveniently turns into an angst-ridden rapprochement with James. That is to say, Feste knows how to work the mixing console to get the sound she’s after, if only she’d turn down the treacle track.

Country Strong’s actual soundtrack lends due diligence to the legends of the genre past and present with songs by Merle Haggard, Lee Ann Womack and Trace Adkins, to drop the more recognizable names. Music supervisor Randall Poster paired up Nashville songwriters with the actors: Hedlund performs honkytonks that could be recorded by Townes Van Zandt or Hayes Carll, and Chiles sings after the fashion of Taylor Swift and Jessica Andrews. The film’s production notes trumpet that the movie was shot entirely in Nashville, an odd boast since most of Country Strong takes place on the road. Feste manages to make one of the great American cities look like Anywhere, USA. This may not count as murder on Music Row, but it’s mighty close to manslaughter.