Tuesday, January 11, 2011


Oscar winning actress Gwyneth Paltrow of “Shakespeare in Love” gives an electrifying performance as a country music superstar in “The Greatest” writer & director Shana Feste’s “Country Strong” (**** out of ****), an earnest tabloid tearjerker about a troubled country crooner in decline. Actually, Feste’s film owes a great deal to the venerable Hollywood soaper “A Star Is Born” that charted the fall of a superstar and the rise of a talented newcomer. Ironically, Feste has said that she drew on the travails that Britney Spears endured when her career took a downward spiral. Mind you, all country music yarns about warblers basically conform to a familiar storyline. You know that “Country Strong” is going to be about the headlines and the heartaches that a vocalist wallows in when either he or she tries to cleanse their shattered souls with booze, pills, and extramarital affairs. Feste’s superior screenplay with sympathetic characters and surprises galore as well as top-notch thesping by an all-around brilliant ensemble cast make the formulaic subject matter far better than you can ever imagine. You don’t have to groove country tunes to wade into this melodrama ripe with interesting characters and raw predicaments. Paltrow’s offbeat casting is a bonus and she dominates the action even though she is often out of the limelight with real-life country singer Tim McGraw playing her husband. Anybody who loved “Walk the Line,” “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” “Nashville,” “Sweet Dreams,” and “Crazy Heart” will find this 117-minute, PG-13 pseudo biographical drama as musically rewarding as it is psychologically riveting.

Grammy winning country music sensation Kelly Cantor (Gwyneth Paltrow) is in rehab when “Country Strong” begins. A year before the pregnant Cantor performed on stage in Dallas and tripped over a cable. She plunged into the audience and suffered a miscarriage. Later, the authorities arrested her because she had been drunk when she had her tragic accident. While in rehab, our recovering alcoholic meets a talented young singer Beau Hutton (Garrett Hedlund of “Georgia Rule”) who dreams of pursuing a career in country music. Beau prefers to play honky-tonk bars where people drink and listen to his tunes rather than tour. Nevertheless, he gets to meet Kelly while she is in rehab, and they have an affair. Before Kelly is fully prepared to leave rehab, her career manager/husband James Canter (Tim McGraw of “The Blind Side”) secures her early release. Symbolically, Kelly totes around an orphan baby quail in a tiny wooden box that she has been nursing back to health. Principally, James wants to get Kelly back in the spotlight on stage before she is written off as a ‘has been.’ He has lined up a three city tour: Austin, Houston, and finally Dallas. Beau doesn’t think that James’ idea is a good one. Naturally, Kelly is ready, willing, and eager. One of the conditions that she decides on before they leave rehab is that Beau accompanies them on tour. Of course, James suspects something is going on between Beau and his wife. James and Kelly aren’t the ideal couple since she lost his baby in an alcohol fueled frenzy on stage. As if to counteract his wife’s demand, James finds a beautiful young singer, Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester of “Date Night”), to open for Kelly. Kelly warns Chiles to stay away from her husband. Meanwhile, Beau pokes fun at Chiles’ clean-scrubbed image as a beauty pageant queen with school teacher parents.

Although Beau and Kelly make out behind James’ back, you know that Beau and Chiles are intractably drawn to each other because they are so antagonistic when they see each other. Beau’s prediction that James took Kelly out of rehab too early comes true when she cannot make her first stage appearance. Kelly’s publicist claims that a bad case of food poisoning kept the superstar from performing at her Austin comeback concert. Indeed, things grow progressively worse for our heroine. She blows her stack when James gives a song that Kelly wanted to record to young Chiles. While they are touring Texas, Beau finds himself attracted to Chiles and he tells Kelly that he doesn’t like having her behind James’ back. Despite her multitude of problems, Kelly rallies when she appears in concert in Dallas where she took a dive a year ago. Eventually, Kelly mends fences with poor Chiles and gives her a laundry list of suggestions about life, love, and performing on stage. Moreover, the sagacious Kelly sees right through Chiles’ squeaky clean image. Never lie to your fans, the two-faced Kelly advises Chiles.

Writer & director Shana Feste does a superlative job orchestrating her characters. Just when you think that you have a character pigeonholed, the character performs an about-face that catches you off-guard. Perhaps the most ironic element of “Country Strong” is Tim McGraw’s turn as the heroine’s music manager. You’d think that McGraw would have taken the plum role that Garrett Hedlund landed, but it is McGraw’s offbeat casting, like Paltrow’s, that gives “Country Strong” its strength. Incidentally, Paltrow warbles her own tunes. Meantime, Leighton Meester registers an excellent performance and proves that her insecure character is far from the shallow princess that she appears to be from the outset. Although this $15-million movie takes place in Texas, Feste and company lensed it primarily in Tennessee. “Country Strong" unspools like a series of memorable high notes.