Friday, January 21, 2011

A Lot of Country, Not a Lot of Rock & Roll

When I first saw posters for the country music drama Country Strong, I'll be the first to admit that I was not looking forward to this particular release. For one, I'm not a big country music fan, and the film seemed tailor-made for fans of the style. Second, Gwyneth Paltrow hasn't had pulled off a notable role since 2005's Proof, and Tim McGraw in an acting role simply reeks of more sentimentality than sense (though it should be noted he was acclaimed for his performance in the 2006 family film Flicka). Finally, the whole concept seemed to hearken back a year, when Jeff Bridges came out of nowhere to win awards for the role of Otis "Bad" Blake in Crazy Heart. Country Strong seemed like a weak opportunity to capitalize on the huge strides Crazy Heart had paved already, and it wasn't until I glimpsed a theatrical trailer that realized that the movie actually looked somewhat entertaining and also noticed Garrett Hedlund here for the first time. Hedlund was the young actor who pretty much took over Tron: Legacy and ran with it. I'll admit it, the trailer really carried me off and so while it wasn't with overwhelmingly positive expectations that I walked into the theater to see Country Strong this week, I certainly was expecting a better show than I thought it would be when I first saw those posters.

Do all country stars wear such short skirts? I might have to attend a few concerts to investigate
Two months after suffering a drunk and disorderly charge from being wasted at a major show in Dallas, six-time Grammy Award winner Kelly Canter (Paltrow) has been taken out and prepared for a comeback tour run by husband/manager James Canter (McGraw). Kelly, who has been removed early and is still emotionally unstable, insists on bringing young unknown music artist Beau Hutton (Hedlund) as an opening act, while James wants to open with former beauty queen turned country pop singer Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester). The tour creates conflicts between all involved, culminating with the make-or-break return of Kelly to Dallas, where she seeks redemption and strength.

"Thank you, Rednecks!"
While the story and themes presented here are a bit reminiscent of last year's superior film, Country Strong doesn't feel inauthentic in it's portrayal of alcoholism, depression or frayed relationships. The conflicts between every major character are believable and create a realistic symmetry of love/hate between each personality. For instance, James obviously loves Kelly, but more for what she was before than for what she is now. He doesn't really trust her anymore, and this mistrust helps found her subsequent relations with Beau and Chiles. Each character undergoes these types of interactions with one another, and the feelings change throughout the course of a film that plot-wise meanders a bit but mostly manages to maintain its story coherently.

"Hey, I can see my house from here!"
Acting-wise, the film has a surprisingly strong cast of well-cast vocally talented actors in its retinue. Paltrow puts on her strongest performance in years as the film's lead. Kelly Canter's emotional problems might hearken back to Bad Blake quite easily, but what she does with the performance is create an honestly sympathetic former superstar's redemption and it doesn't hurt that she puts on amazing musical performances as well. It takes a while to get to the big productions at the end of the film, but even early on she is believable in small scenes of her writing songs with Beau or attending a Make A Wish meeting to meet a young fan. Her performances of songs like "Country Strong" and the award-nominated original song "Coming Home" are simply amazing, and her charisma comes through as naturally as they would a career musician. McGraw is great as Kelly's husband James, a man who loves Kelly and wants her to recover, but is going about it the wrong way and can't bring himself to trust her implicitly. I thought McGraw would be one of the film's weak links, but he acquits himself nicely, especially in some emotionally-charged scenes with Paltrow and Hedlund.

Paltrow puts on one of her best performances in the film and on stage
Speaking of Hedlund, there's a star in the making; I thought so in Tron and the idea reaffirms itself here. Hedlund not only has amazing acting range, but backs it up with natural vocal talents that would put some professionals to shame. He's perfectly cast here as the protective Beau, and I can't wait to see more of him in the future. Meester doesn't have the vocal talents of her peers (you can tell the auto tuner is working overtime here) but still has enough charm to act alongside her fellow actors. Her occasionally stage-frightened pop princess may be billed as the new Carrie Underwood, but her character is actually allowed to grow from this narrow setting and grow, and that makes Meester's efforts notable, if not so much as her co-leads.

McGraw is the film's true surprise
As I said before, the story meanders a little and the story seems derivative of what's come before. It's a bit rote and not a little predictable, especially in the final act. The lack of polish could be due to inexperience: writer/director Shana Feste has only directed one film before this, the largely-unknown 2009 film The Greatest. The simple fact that Kelly Canter was inspired not by a country superstar like Faith Hill or Sugerland's Jennifer Nettles but by Britney Spears speaks to perhaps the lack of thought really put into the character's creation. That said, the film does have a healthy respect for country music as a whole, perhaps even more than Crazy Heart did. With amazing songs including the Hedlund/Meester duet "Give In to Me" and Sara Evans' "A Little Bit Stronger", not to mention the aforementioned "Country Strong" and "Coming Home", the soundtrack legitimizes what might have been a much poorer film. The film is really worth seeing in the theaters for two reasons: the amazing acting performances and the even more astounding music. True, you COULD buy the soundtrack if you wanted the music, but since it doesn't have the Hedlund/Meester "Give In to Me" recording it's not really worth the price. This movie is worth more than you probably realize, and if you missed Crazy Heart you'll probably be happier with Country Strong than most. But if you remember last year's Best Actor winner, you'll probably be better off going back to re-watch that than spend more money on this.

No comments: