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Country Strong

Same old Song

The first, but by no means last sign that we’re in January — when big and small Hollywood studios dump their least cherished projects on semi-unsuspecting moviegoers — is the arrival of writer-director Shana Feste’s (The Greatest) latest film, Country Strong, an overlong backstage melodrama that will remind film-savvy audiences of significantly better entries in the sub-genre (e.g., Crazy Heart, Tender Mercies, Coal Miner’s Daughter).

Country Strong is also a sup-par star vehicle for one-time Oscar winner Gwyneth Paltrow, sharing her slightly above-average vocal talents in front of the camera for the first time since the little-seen Duets that co-starred Huey Lewis a decade ago.

Country Strong opens on the wrong note, focusing not on Kelly Canter (Paltrow), a mega-country-western star reportedly based on Britney Spears (or to be more accurate, Spears’ very public breakdown several years ago), the ostensible central character and protagonist, but on Beau Hutton (Garrett Hedlund), a struggling singer-songwriter as he perfunctorily performs a country-western song before changing into his work clothes for his day job at a presumably exclusive rehab center in Nashville. When he’s not working, Hutton’s hanging out in Canter’s room, strumming his guitar and singing his latest composition to an approving Canter. He’s also, as he’s quick to point out, Kelly’s sobriety “sponsor.”

A romance between Canter and Hutton seems unlikely, however, with Canter’s manager-husband, James (Tim McGraw), keeping a watchful eye on her. Certain that what Kelly needs is to go back on tour and not spend another month in rehab, James pulls her out, setting up dates for Kelly’s “Encore” mini-tour in Houston, Austin, and finally Dallas. James reluctantly invites Hutton to open for Kelly, primarily so Hutton can keep her sober before and after she performs. James also invites an ambitious next-gen country singer (and former beauty queen), Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester), apparently setting up an All About Eve-style conflict between Kelly and Chiles that, like many of Country Strong’s story threads, fails to develop into anything substantial dramatically or emotionally.

Country Strong’s central conflict between fame and love (according to Feste, you can only have), doesn’t appear until the last half hour. By then, Country Strong has meandered between Kelly’s undermotivated public and private breakdowns, Hutton and Kelly’s undefined relationship, Kelly and James’ faltering marriage, and Hutton’s love-hate relationship with Chiles.

That last plot reversal suggests Feste had little idea how, where, and when to end Country Strong, but instead throws in one last country-western inspired heart tug before breaking for one, mercifully last duet, a reprise of an earlier song that we’ve already heard twice before. But at least, with contributions from numerous real-life singer-songwriters and producers, quality songwriting and, to a lesser extent, quality singing help to offset Country Strong’s countless weaknesses.