Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Jan 15, 2011 5:45 pm 
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January delivers country corn pone with a couple of up-and-comers

Gweneth Paltrow, her costar Garrett Hedlund, and the supporting players, Leighton Meester and Tim McGraw, are on far too familiar ground in this drama of a big country music star with alcohol problems pulled out of rehab too early to go back on tour. But Country Strong comes out in the January Hollywood dump time, and the choice being poor, you may still want to watch it, if you don't think Paltrow is too recessive to play a country music queen. She does show bravery and edge in a role that just skirts the maudlin. And she has strong chemistry with young-male-hottie of the moment Hedlund. He appeared as Jeff Bridges' son in Tron: Legacy last month but gets to display more of his obvious charms here with his big smile, sparkly blue eyes, worn jeans and a battered cowboy hat than he was allowed in that dark cyber-world of confusing clones and doppelgangers. Though he's allowed few expressions besides anguished concern and a come-on smile, that's about all anybody in this movie is granted and in his case both pop off the screen. There's also Leighton Meester from Gossip Girl as the singing ingenue. Then there are the songs. The rambling music melodrama bows too deeply to genre requirements to develop its own plot points but, despite focus on a tour of Texas cities, it's steeped in the sounds of Nashville where it was made.

Everything begins hopefully, with a sweet opening scene whose slow back-and-forth rhythm is so natural and cozy you think you're just going to love this movie. Kelly Canter (Paltrow), the country superstar with alcohol problems recovering from a Dallas concert meltdown, is in her room in rehab with Beau Hutton (Hedlund), an employee of the place and an experienced country singer himself at the cowboy bar level, as they romance each other over a song Beau's trying to write, trading song lines and guitar licks and making eyes at each other. He's sweet on her and later will claim to be one of her recovery sponsors. She either adores him or loves his attentions. The chemistry is good. All this comes to an abrupt halt when Kelly's husband and manager James Canter sweeps in. He's played by Tiim McGraw, a good singer himself, maybe (though he doesn't sing on screen here), but saddled with a role even more one-note than Hedlund's turns out to be. He grabs Kelly and takes her out against the protests of Beau, way before her rehab has run its term, to rush her back on tour.

Kelly's pimp-like husband James is never adequately taken to task for his cruel exploitation. Beau gets drawn into Kelly's comeback tour, because James sees him perform and knows he's good but also to help keep Kelly off the booze. But the growing love between Beau and Kelly, the emotional lifeblood of the movie, is gradually overwhelmed by a hokey romance between Beau and the kewpie-doll ingenue singer Chiles Stanton (Meester), who comes on the tour as the main opening act and gets more and more screen time, though she is as shallow as her former beauty queen cover story. We never learn what pain may have fed Kelly's longtime drinking history or even what her life as a superstar has otherwise been like. Instead, the movie goes through its ritual excerpt-of-a-movie-biopic paces without developing character or relationships very much. The tour goes from Texas town to Texas town, with Beau and Chiles included as openers of Kelly's show and Kelly repeatedly collapsing on stage and off, only to rally inexplicably after a campy photo op sequence with a boy who has leukemia, giving one triumphant concert, then veering into tragedy.

A country superstar is a thing of bright lights and promotion, and not as good a subject for a movie about meltdowns and substance abuse as a rundown honkytonk singer like Jeff Bridges' Bad Blake in the 2009 Crazy Heart, which won Bridges and Maggie Gyllenhaal Oscars, and won the songwriters Ryan Bingham and T-Bone Burnett Oscars too -- or like Gérard Depardieu's wonderfully lived-in performance as an aging dance-band singer in Xavier Giannoli's 2006 The Singer. Watching Country Strong can only make one hanker desperately for the far richer writing and acting opportunities offered by those better films. Behind the glitz of Kelly Canter's life there is tragedy; that's all we get to know. The movie wastes too much time on the sub-romance between Beau and Chiles to develop Kelly -- or Kelly's relationship with Beau, which if developed might have yielded as good scenes as those between Bridges and Gyllenhaal in Crazy Heart. As for Chiles, there are dropped stitches in the writing of her character too right from the beginning. Interesting that Kelly guesses her "schoolteacher" parents are actually jailbirds, but she comes on at first as a performer who clutches repeatedly onstage and is seen doing so at a rural venue when she has to be rescued by Beau. This meshes not at all with her subsequent total confidence on stage. Beau remains a laid-back and appealing cipher. How he can be contemptuous of Chiles and then become her partner and lover is never made clear.

Paltrow may be too bland and eastern preppie to impersonate someone in a line of work dominated by the likes of Dolly Parton. She gets her peppy stage performances, including the overly pumped-up final one, with too much trotting around and waving and the prancing-off line to Chiles, "That's how it's done, sweetheart" -- showing this is a movie of gesture rather than act -- or character development, or, in Paltrow's case, of interesting vocal performances. There's nothing remotely approaching Michelle Pfeiffer crawling over the piano and tearing up "Making Whoopie" in The Famulous Baker Boys. The attempts at glitz make even Burlesque look good. In the end, it seems like Leighton Meester, with her attention-getting plucky up-and-comer scenes and Garrett Hedlund, with his sparkly blue eyes and soulful sexiness, steal the show from the stereotypical tragic artist loser Gwyneth Paltrow and her pimp-like husband Tim McGraw, whom we get neither to like nor to understand. Though it has some entertaining moments, nothing makes this movie memorable.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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