Like rock fans, country music fans respond to authenticity -- even if it's totally faked. When Country Strong, the sophomore effort of writer/director Shana Feste, stays inside a crumbling but not yet dead marriage, it feels like the real deal. Sadly, its clichéd ending feels like the paint-by-numbers conclusion that it is.
The movie opens with country superstar Kelly Canter (Gwyneth Paltrow) being pulled out of rehab by her husband/manager, James (Tim McGraw). He wants to get her back on tour so she can rebuild her tabloid train-wreck public image. She demands they bring along Beau Hutton (Garrett Hedlund), a worker at the rehab center who is both a talented local singer/songwriter and Kelly's secret lover. James initially resists, but gives in when he sees Beau calm the stage nerves of Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester), another local singer whom James wants to bring on the tour.
As this foursome fall in and out of love, and in and out of each other's beds, Kelly falls deeper and deeper into alcoholism, even though James has planned a comeback show in Dallas -- one year to the day after a spectacular meltdown during a concert where the five-months-pregnant celeb fell ten feet from the stage in a drunken stupor.
At its best, Country Strong gives us a look inside a marriage struggling through problems -- guilt, grief, and blame -- exacerbated by celebrity and wealth. Paltrow and McGraw are quite good. The Canters' relationship isn't black-and-white; they are both complex people full of love and disgust for each other and themselves. The moments the two share -- and they run the gamut from physical altercations to loving pillow talk -- do feel like the genuine result of a life lived together through some intense highs and lows.
Kelly's addiction controls her, but not completely. She's self-destructive, to be sure, yet she's bright enough to see that it's happening, and to feel sorry for the others around her. Paltrow gets across this tragic quality with finesse, even when the script hammers the point home. For his part, Tim McGraw gives a smartly nuanced performance -- there's a ton going on inside James, but he's been playing the part of the placating manager for so long he can't quite stop, because it's more comfortable than being a husband to such a troubled woman.
If the movie had focused primarily on the two of them, it would pack a much stronger punch, but instead we spend just as much time with Beau and Chiles. Hedlund, wearing scruffy facial hair throughout, looks like a cross between Brad Pitt and Dax Shepard. He's blandly appealing, like most new-country hat acts, which is unfortunate since the film wants us to believe he's the second coming of Townes Van Zandt. Meester actually does a fine job with what amounts to a classic ingenue role -- her scheming is endearingly inept. Their innocence-lost story arcs just aren't nearly as fascinating or complex as the other relationship in the movie.
Many classic country songs are emotionally direct, and tackle messy feelings without necessarily resolving them. Many new-country songs are glossy, feel-good pop tunes that are instantly forgettable. Country Strong manages to start as the former, but ends as the latter.