Country comeback 

Paltrow impresses in 'Country Strong.'

'COUNTRY STRONG': Gwyneth Paltrow and Tim McGraw star.
  • 'COUNTRY STRONG': Gwyneth Paltrow and Tim McGraw star.

We first meet aging star Kelly Canter (Gwyneth Paltrow) in rehab. Sprawled on her bed adorned in diamonds and a silk chemise, Kelly is listening with rapt attention to the guitar-playing of aspiring singer/songwriter orderly, Beau Hutton (Garrett Hedlund), with his sparkling eyes and ivory-toothed grin. We're given two distinct messages here: 1) Something is going on between these two, and 2) Kelly is the type of woman who wears diamonds to a treatment facility.

Now surely you remember "Crazy Heart," last year's Oscar-winning Jeff Bridges vehicle? The one where he's like Merle Haggard but washed up, lonely and alcoholic? The heroine of "Country Strong" is like that — but rich and female — which apparently means a lot more "crazy" than whatever Jeff Bridges' negligent tippling could muster.

But there's more here — a subplot, for one, involving a wannabe starlet, the bee-stung-lipped beauty queen Chiles Stanton (played by Leighton Meester of "Gossip Girl" fame), who is hand-picked by Kelly's longtime show-husband, James (Tim McGraw), to join her on a Texas-wide comeback tour. Kelly also requests that the orderly open for them as well, and James obliges only under the terms that Beau looks after Kelly in her post-rehab frailty. So Kelly's story becomes loaded down with an all-business husband, a chipper female rival and a handsome sex-interest supporter all crammed in.

There are moments of brilliance in the Paltrow/McGraw dynamic. While at times James is as slick as McGraw's lace-front hairpiece — pulling Kelly out of rehab to tour, making near-lecherous wardrobe demands of Chiles — he has strained feelings for his tormented wife. Their marriage is a role-reversal: it's the husband who's become sexually estranged, resentful, and emotionally withdrawn, thrown thanklessly into the role of caretaker for his more-talented, more-charismatic partner. McGraw's acting feels wholly real, especially when pitted against Paltrow's nailed portrayal of, let's face it, a trashy and aging woman relying upon a devoted, but abused, fanbase.

Because Kelly's crumbling stability and obsession with her fraught marriage are such compelling conflicts in themselves, it feels almost insulting to be subjected to the sexy subplot of Beau and Chiles' on-tour grade-school flirtation. Why should we be forced to sit through inferior actors fake-falling in love, when there's a Gwyneth Paltrow lurking around the corner, ready to smash our hearts?

Shot at easily recognizable locations in Nashville, Dallas, and Austin, and including cameos from folks like Marshall Chapman, it's a gem for the country music fan. Unfortunately, the movie falls victim to its own melodramatic impulse. When it works, "Country Strong" is a whirlwind tour diary, a heartfelt depiction of a show-business marriage, and a smart indictment of the machine of the country music industry hinged on a damaged but magnetic female character.



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