Having the misfortune of coming on the heels of high-achieving, superbly acted films like Walk the Line and Crazy Heart, a country music-themed film like Country Strong has little chance of winning many fans. In spite of its title, this is a pretty weak film.
Borrowing the washed-up/alcoholic/formerly superstar comeback story of Crazy Heart, Country Strong tells the story of Kelly Canter (Gwyneth Paltrow), a Shania Twain-caliber country diva with a drinking problem. After a concert meltdown, in which a drunken fall off the stage resulted in the loss of the baby she was carrying, Canter does a stint in rehab. After rehab, she and husband/manager, James (Tim McGraw), embark on a comeback tour to reestablish her cred. For the tour's opening acts, James recruits two fresh-faced young talents whom he plans to groom into the next big things: Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester), a pop-tart beauty queen with a sweet naiveté, and Beau Hutton (Garrett Hedlund), heartthrob cowboy content to play honky tonks and sing love songs outside the limelight.
Most of the film consists of the assorted soap opera antics of the ensuing tour: Various parties sleeping with one another, marriages suffering, young love developing, Kelly relapsing and ruining yet another concert with a meltdown. It's chaos. Intermittently, we get quaint original songs performed by the three leading actors (using their own voices), serviceable each, if not on par with the Joaquin Phoenix-as-Johnny Cash standard.
It's odd that in a film about country music, the one lead actor who doesn't sing at all is the one with legitimate Nashville chops: Tim McGraw. He plays a dour, slightly sleazy but good-natured businessman instead. For her part, Paltrow pulls off the diva roll and proves again—in the film's final "comeback performance" especially—that she can sing winningly. (Check out her fine performance at the CMA Awards.) Too bad Paltrow's character is too unlikeable for us to care much.
In spite of the film's best efforts to portray Kelly as a victim of the toxic villainy of fame, she comes across as not much more than a narcissistic, self-destructive artist ruled by her own frightful ambitions to reach the top and stay there. The one moment we see some of Kelly's humanity is when she meets a Make-a-Wish Foundation leukemia patient and spontaneously sings a song for him. But this momentary episode of other-focused altruism is quickly followed by a return to all-eyes-on-Kelly self-obsession as she endeavors to show her detractors that she is, indeed, "Country Strong."
Thankfully there are other characters in the film to care for. The younger pair of singers, undamaged infants in the business, are much easier to like. Predictably, Beau and Chiles fall in love and begin crooning together on stage and writing duets. It's corny and clichéd, but also endearing. The viewer can't help but empathize with their wide-eyed interest in the simple pleasures of life (drinking beer, riding trucks, admiring the beauty of the California beaches). The film's best moments are when these two, in spite of the chaos around them, find a way to tease out the inherent, simple loveliness of old-school romance. As in, "Cowboy, take me away," or, "Let's jump in the jalopy and drive off into the sunset." This sort of tenderly sentimental Americana is why we love country music, and it's why this film isn't a total loss.