Review: COUNTRY STRONG - Unoriginal Script Rescued By Excellent Cast
rating: 3Forget darkness, desperation and Jeff Bridges leaving the stage to throw up, this country music drama may feature alcoholism, broken marriage and the pressures of fame but Country Strong is less down and dirty than a throw back to the Hollywood melodrama of the 50s. Gwyneth Paltrow (in her first leading role since 2005's Proof) plays Kelly Canter, a washed up country star fresh out of rehab on her comeback tour. Along for the ride are young romance Beau Hutton (Garrett Hedlund) reluctantly dragged from small town bars to stadiums concerts, husband and manager James (Tim McGraw) and prom queen turned rising country star, Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester). With a plot as predictable as Kelly's frequent lapses into drink, it is an achievement that the love square between the film's four central characters remains genuinely charming. Gwyneth Paltrow's fragile and slightly cracked beauty capture a star always on the verge of breakdown. Although her vocal talents are less convincing (take a look at her performance at the Oscars for evidence) her on stage performances are wisely limited by Shana Feste, directing her second feature after 2009's The Greatest. Feste obviously knows how to cast too: Leighton Meester (her off Gossip Girl) is perfect as Chiles the ambitious but naïve country starlett and her love/hate relationship with Garrett Hedlund's Beau is witty and heartwarming. At one point before going out on stage Chiles asks Beau how she looks; Like a Country Barbie. Thank You! she replies, clearly ecstatic. Hedlund, complete with cowboy hat and battered pick-up, is also by far the stand out performer and lends an easy charm and charisma to his role as the rugged heartthrob. On the other side is Kelly and James' rapidly disintegrating marriage punctuated by moments that resemble their old flame. It is unfortunate that Tim McGraw (a real life country singer) is wasted in a non-performing part but he manages to give the difficult part of James a sense of awkward romance and wounded pride under the sharp business suits. It is credit to the cast in general that we feel sympathetically towards all the characters even if they seem to inhabit a fairytale universe where being drunk can be at one moment throwing up in a bin and the next spouting profundities about the nature of love. In a way it matters little that anyone who saw the first five minutes could guess exactly where this is going and who ends up with who; it is enough to enjoy seeing the pieces being put together by an first rate cast. Inevitably there are some moments that are more gag inducing than tear jerking; particularly cringe-worthy is when Kelly's maternal woes surface while attending to a injured baby quail. And as for convincingly dealing with alcoholism or issues of celebrity, Hello magazine is less superficial and more likely to provide insightful conclusions. Country Strong in the end may amount to little more than forgettable melodramatic fluff, but it is fun all the same and it certainly does not deserve the critical mauling it has received so far. Country Strong is released in the U.K. today.