Andy Bockelman: ‘Country Strong’ features sharp music, flat story

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Andy Bockelman is a member of the Denver Film Critics Society, and his movie reviews appear in Explore Steamboat and the Craig Daily Press.

'Country Strong'

2.5 out of 4 stars

117 minutes

Starring: Gwyneth Paltrow, Tim McGraw, Garrett Hedlund and Leighton Meester.

Now playing at West Theatre and Steamboat Springs’ Carmike Chief Plaza 4.

The strum of an acoustic guitar, a chorus of melancholy lyrics and the remnants of a few too many empty whiskey bottles littered across the floor. Like any movie about the world of honky-tonk, “Country Strong” has these basic elements down, but as the music plays on, it doesn’t resonate quite as strongly as it should for those in the cheap seats.

The career of country star Kelly Canter (Gwyneth Paltrow) has hit an all-time low. Ever since a disastrous concert tour that nearly ruined her and her husband/manager, James (Tim McGraw), the singer has been confined to rehabilitation to sober up and pull herself together.

But, James is certain that his wife can handle getting back on the road, arranging for a three-city comeback tour in Texas. Along for the ride are Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester), a former beauty pageant winner looking to become the next big country talent, and Beau Hutton (Garrett Hedlund), a small-time singer who has befriended Kelly during her stint in rehab.

Still, even with James doing everything he can to get Kelly back in the good graces of the public, she starts to slide back down the slippery slope of recovery, looking to Beau for support rather than her own man.

In spite of her lack of a musical past, Paltrow doesn’t disappoint as the one-time powerhouse who can still belt out a moving tune in the face of hard times. Oddly, her singing is stronger than her acting, as she struggles to make Kelly a full-fleshed role, though the singer’s pathos-riddled life is all too real.

Country star McGraw is solid on the other side of the singer/manager dynamic, forever pushing his wife to reach the heights he knows she can hit, yet always ready to pick up the pieces when she inevitably stumbles.

On the second tier, Meester wavers between cute and cloying as Chiles, who envisions herself as the potential successor to Kelly’s legacy — if only she can get over a recurring bout of stage fright. The “Gossip Girl” star has a lovely voice, to be sure, but the radio-friendly bubblegum songs her character writes are too much to take.

Hedlund, a warm and welcome presence here, gives the most worthwhile showing as Beau, whose indifference to fame and fortune and love of music for the sake of it offset some of the weaker moments among the rest of the cast.

Kelly’s saga doesn’t exactly bring to mind such country music character studies as “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” “Sweet Dreams” or “Walk the Line.”

Of course, those were based on the lives of actual performers.

But, Ms. Canter still takes a backseat to the likes of the omnibus of oddballs in “Nashville” or the similarly addiction-centric “Crazy Heart.” Sure, there’s unspoken drama, there’s complicated romantic links and there’s some uplifting moments — most notably a wonderful scene in which Kelly serenades a Make-a-Wish child (Gabe Sipos) — but it’s all too drawn out and labored to grab our attention until an 11th hour plot twist that will undoubtedly split the viewers who were already emotionally invested.

However, the saving grace in this country-themed attempt at “A Star Is Born” is in the music, with a soundtrack that includes, among a string of country favorites, original material like “Words I Couldn’t Say,” “Chances Are,” the Oscar-nominated “Coming Home” and the titular song, which Paltrow makes a show-stopper. And, though Paltrow, Meester and Hedlund are completely watchable onstage, it’s hard to fathom why second-time writer-director Shana Feste chose to keep bona fide country superstar McGraw out of the musical diegesis, though he and his leading team up for the closing duet “Me and Tennessee,” penned by Paltrow’s husband, Coldplay singer Chris Martin.

“Country Strong” works better as a musical showcase than as a serious tale of showbiz ups and downs. With some tweaks in the story, it would probably be stronger and able to hit more of a high note, but as it stands now, if you close your eyes and open your ears, you’ll walk out much more satisfied.

Now playing at West Theatre and Steamboat Springs’ Carmike Chief Plaza 4.

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