'Country Strong' a Nashville nightmare

Updated: 2010-12-23 09:10


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'Country Strong' a Nashville nightmare

LOS ANGELES - The best country songs never take themselves too seriously. Hell, if you really believed every emotion in certain ones, you'd want to kill yourself. But there is usually something good-natured in even a low-down tale of woe.

Writer-director Shana Feste's "Country Strong," a melodrama set among country music performers, takes itself far too seriously. Themes and cliches plucked from countless country lyrics fuel a thoroughly unconvincing show business story about a larger-than-life, crash-and-burn star and her unruly entourage of self-serving personalities.

The odd-couple pairing of Oscar winner Gwyneth Paltrow and country superstar Tim McGraw -- who never sings a lick in the entire movie! -- might pull in fans during the opening frames. But Screen Gems' December 22 release doesn't seem strong enough to last more than a few weeks in theaters. Its only real pluses are fine vocal performances from Paltrow -- she's sung in movies such as "Duets" and "Infamous," so this is no surprise -- and by the relative newcomers Garrett Hedlund ("Tron: Legacy") and Leighton Meester ("Gossip Girl").

While Paltrow also looks sensational, McGraw is asked to go against his own likable personality to play a character who is anal-retentive, self-pitying and continually out of sorts. Who thought that was a good idea?

But then there are few good ideas here since the movie wallows in about every country chestnut imaginable. If it's country, there's got to be a drunken performer struggling to get back in the game, right? If it's country, it's got to have betrayals, broken hearts, a sick kid, a couple of punches to the face and pickup trucks. Yep, got 'em all.

Paltrow plays a country superstar in rehab whose manager-husband (McGraw) pulls her out of the facility far too early to begin a comeback. Somehow while in rehab she contrives -- or rather Feste does it for her -- to have an affair with an up-and-coming singer (Hedlund) who just happens to work in the facility. Next thing you know, her husband has signed him up as her opening act along with his new protege, a beauty queen-turned-singer (Meester). A romantic triangle swiftly turns into a quadrangle.

Oh, and let's not forget a baby bird the superstar has rescued from an abandoned nest, which she carries around as a poor symbolic substitute for the fetus she lost when a drunken fall onstage caused a miscarriage.

It's hard to synopsize this movie because it sounds even worse than it actually is. What relieves the utter crassness of the story are quite a few songs performed well by the two youngsters. You wish that Paltrow's character wasn't forever collapsing onstage so she can sing her heart out too. Near the climax, she finally gets to strut her stuff musically. But why does the movie hold this back?

The dynamics between Hedlund and Meester are equally puzzling. He initially is contemptuous of her and her talent, yet this doesn't prevent him from coming to her rescue when she freezes onstage or staring at her with bedroom eyes despite his supposed romantic loyalty to his married lover.

This is not his only contradictory behavior. On this ill-fated tour, he becomes an overnight sensation but inexplicably wants to shun stardom to play in clubs and honky-tonks.

"Country Strong" feels like a script that needed a Page One rewrite. Ideas and character relationships are poorly thought out. Motivations are hard to pin down as characters seemingly abandon their own best interests.

Feste, who has one previous effort as a writer-director, last year's family melodrama "The Greatest," fails here to do the most basic thing -- give an audience a rooting interest, or any interest at all, in these four troubled people. Showbiz glamour and soap opera only get you so far.


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