Too familiar and unrefined, this new, if retro-minded social melodrama shouldn't bother many who probably won't mind how it really doesn't remind them of a hearty, well-worn country tune.
The episodic Country Strong starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Tim McGraw, Garrett Hedlund and Leighton Meester is hardly a convincing rendition of a fallen, yet not down-and-out country music superstar played by the actress of Iron Man 2 and Two Lovers.
Those who saw Paltrow's live performance at the recent CMA Awards will see that she has some music dexterity in her life, balancing family life with husband Chris Martin as Coldplay frontman. She hasn't headlined a movie since Proof opposite Anthony Hopkins and Jake Gyllenhaal. After a very likable performance on the popular TV show Glee, here's an opportunity to play with her perception as on-screen here she's an unstable figure in need of new focus and direction. The result, however, is mostly in the neighborhood of the first movie where she displayed some vocal chops in Duets, directed by her late father, Bruce Paltrow.
Director Shana Feste (whose initial film was the little seen drama The Greatest) imparts an elemental trajectory through Paltrow's multiple Grammy-winning Kelly Canter, whose bout with alcoholism during a major tour led to a miscarriage and rehab.
The thrust from the director and scribe comes the fragility of Kelly's condition when husband/manager James (McGraw, who made the film while performing on his Southern Voice tour) decides she's ready for a comeback tour. It seems that during rehab she has connected with one half of her new upstart opening act - singer/songwriter Beau Hutton (Hedlund of Tron:Legacy). The other being beauty queen turned country singer Chiles Stanton (Meester of TV's New York-set Gossip Girl) whom James takes a liking to and who incidentally becomes a rival of someone influenced her career aspirations.
If the characters aren't that predictable, it's because it's hard to read their motivations because at times they don't seem to follow their hearts or their heads. Perhaps that's due to their unrealized, overly opaque nature which doesn't offer much in the way of audience empathy. A little metaphorical touch comes in the way of a bird rescued by Kelly as solace for her loss. McGaw's gruffness goes against a more personable side displayed in the Sandra Bullock hit The Blind Side as it's not clear what made James so attractive to Kelly let alone what brought on her self-destruction.
Yet, what isn't fleshed out enough particularly for an odd couple like Kelly and James in what amounts to a fairly no-frills production, touches on some of the emotional instability as a romantic quadrangle ensues. Country Strong isn't really very interested when it comes to realizing inner strife or the tendencies within relationships.
Arguably, the arc of the Beau/Chiles strand is also problematic from where their initial set-up contemptuously begins. But, Meester is a fine perky presence opposite to her more familiar socialite role and, better yet, Hedlund projects an honest, heartfelt low-key rising talent, the kind of person that comes off as more authentic than his impressionable Sam Flynn opposite Jeff Bridges.
When the name of Bridges (see True Grit) comes up, it's difficult not to mention his acclaimed star turn in last year's Crazy Heart whose premise is similar to what is more soapy, splashy and less emblazoned with gritty realism to turn dissolution into redemption. But, those discovering this dramatically enervating platform genre item with for occasionally decent acting settings and melodic songs like Coming Home and the title track performed by a leggy, heftier Paltrow should have a strong country time.