Gwyneth Paltrow is a beautiful, gifted actress with a lovely singing voice, but she’s never been more miscast than she is in Country Strong. She plays Kelly Canter, a self-destructive country-music superstar who is just getting out of rehab after a career-wrecking performance in Dallas where she fell off the stage, drunk and five months pregnant, and suffered a miscarriage. Keeping this catastrophe off-screen is one of the few wise decisions made by writer-director Shana Feste (The Greatest), who apparently is equally a fan of All About Eve and Valley of the Dolls.
As written, Kelly should be a tormented, guilt-stricken performer trying to regain her confidence while struggling with the demons of addiction. But Paltrow plays her as a weepy whiner in need of serious therapy and non-smearing mascara. Kelly coos over a rescued baby bird she keeps in a box and freaks out when someone mails her a grotesque doll smeared in red with the note “Baby Killer!” Her husband/manager James (Tim McGraw) puts up with her erratic behavior and ladles on the “You can do it, baby!” speeches, even though he’s aware Kelly got a little closer than necessary to her rehab sponsor Beau (Garrett Hedlund).
Beau, coincidentally, is an aspiring country singer, and joins the opening act of Kelly’s comeback tour, along with Chiles (Leighton Meester), a former beauty queen afflicted by stage fright. Everyone takes turns singing onstage and sleeping with each other (except for McGraw, who does neither; talk about drawing the short straw). Will Beau press on and wreck Kelly’s marriage, or will he opt for the pretty, more age-appropriate Chiles? Will Kelly get her act together before their tour returns to Dallas, where everything fell apart? Will anyone remember to feed that little bird, left forgotten for troubling stretches of screen time?
The only things that keep Country Strong from being an outright disaster — that makes the movie watchable, really — are the insanely catchy songs performed by the cast, all of whom did their own singing. The movie constantly cuts away after the tunes’ first chorus, which is frustrating, but the snippets you do get to hear are terrific, making you wish Country Strong would set the backstage histrionics aside and put the music front and center, the way Crazy Heart did. Paltrow’s singing voice is clear and strong, but her performances during the concert sequences are awkward: she looks more like a supermodel strutting down the runway than a musician. That stiffness extends to her work through the rest of the movie, too. In Country Strong, the Oscar-winning Paltrow gets upstaged and outacted by the kid from Tron and the snotty brat from Gossip Girl. Who’d have thought?
Cast: Gwyneth Paltrow, Tim McGraw, Garrett Hedlund, Leighton Meester.
Writer-director: Shana Feste.
Producers: Jenno Topping, Tobey Maguire.
A Screen Gems studios release. Running time: 118 minutes. Vulgar language, sexual situations. Playing at: area theaters.