DVD Release Date: April 12, 2011
Theatrical Release Date: January 7, 2011 (wide)
Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements involving alcohol abuse and some sexual content)
Genre: Drama, Music
Run Time: 112 min. 
Director: Shana Feste
Actors: Gwyneth Paltrow, Garrett Hedlund, Tim McGraw, Leighton Meester, Marshall Chapman, Cinda McCain

Hollywood
may be about to get blind-sided.

If the industry thinks Country Strong—set in Red State America and starring country music superstar Tim McGraw—is going to resonate with the same sizable audience that turned out for The Blind Side, it needs to think again.

Whereas The Blind Side, based on a true story, featured characters the audience rooted for, Country Strong centers on three self-indulgent characters who generate little sympathy, if not active disdain. The presence of McGraw—a fourth, more admirable character—isn't enough to save the movie, although he makes the film more tolerable.

Kelly Canter (Gwyneth Paltrow) is a country music star whose career is on the verge of eclipse. She's in rehab after injuring herself during a performance months earlier, but the damage wasn't only to Kelly's body and career. The singer, with a blood alcohol level that measured 0.19 at the time of the accident, was also pregnant, and the accident caused her to lose the baby

Her marriage hasn't been the same since. Her husband and manager, James (McGraw), is no longer intimate with her, dashing her hopes that they might have a child together. But the distance between them isn't all James' fault. He's competing for the affection of Kelly, whose love of the bottle hasn't been quenched by her stint in rehab. She's also having an affair with bar singer Beau Hutton (Garrett Hedlund). Kelly offers Beau his big break opening for her post-rehab tour, although he's leery of the glitz and glamour of big-time commercial country music.

Joining the love triangle of Kelly, James and Beau is former beauty queen Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester). Chiles, another upcoming singer, is willing to sing any pop/country confection given to her. She's also prone to freezing-up on stage. Beau initially mocks her but then takes her under his wing, and eventually into his bed.

Left to deal with Kelly's wandering heart is James, who perseveres with her even as she strays and stumbles. Although his persistence amid marital difficulties is admirable, it's also a professional obligation. We're never sure if James truly loves Kelly or sees her merely as a star client. The closest we get is a reminiscence of the first time he heard Kelly sing, although even then, he speaks about the beauty of Kelly's voice, not her soul. We hear Kelly mock their union as "the best marriage in country music" while she flirts with Beau, but we don't fully understand the roots of Kelly's and James' union. It's possible that James hitched his career to Kelly and married her for reasons other than love. 

Without a deeper understanding of what makes these characters tick, we have to define them through their professional ambitions. Beau is the supposed voice of integrity—the film is more his story than it is Kelly's or Chiles'—but watching him sing a round of Garth Brooks' "Friends in Low Places," a huge country hit song, makes it difficult to buy into Beau as a do-it-my-own-way industry rebel. Chiles is sweet and overwhelmed, but in the end, her character is just another romantic conquest for Beau. Kelly is the one we're supposed to cheer for, but her affairs only serve to make us sympathize with James.

The film's music-comeback storyline is a closer match for Crazy Heart than it is for The Blind Side—the success of both may have figured into this film's development—but those films contained career performances (from Jeff Bridges and Sandra Bullock, respectively) from actors who made any clichés in the story ring true. Paltrow and the other actors in Country Strong try their best to inject their film with emotion and power, but the script from writer/director Shana Feste is cluttered and so on-the-surface that the story never generates enough real emotion. The romances need more heat and the music more conviction to generate the payoff Feste wants the audience to feel for Kelly, Beau and Chiles.