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Clichés Hamper Country Strong

  • Christian Hamaker Contributing Writer
  • 2011 7 Jan
Clichés Hamper <i>Country Strong</i>

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

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.

The actors' performances are strong, but what they've been given to work with is weak. That makes Country Strong as irritating and instantly forgettable as the pop/country music Beau derides.
  • Language/Profanity: Lord's name taken in vain several times; multiple obscenities, including "s-it," "bulls-it," "a-s," "hell."
  • Alcohol/Drugs: Kelly begins the movie in rehab, then leaves but relapses; song lyrics include the line "drink until he's cute"; Kelly takes pills, but James says the pills are problematic for her only if they're mixed with alcohol; Kelly is seen drinking; Kelly drinks and dances on a bar; beer-drinking during another bar scene; Kelly is said to have earlier fallen off a stage while having a blood alcohol level of .19, leading to a miscarriage; a champagne toast; in another scene, alcohol and drugs are involved in an incident that leads to a late-in-film plot development.
  • Sex/Nudity: Beau mentions that he slept with a singer's friend; Kelly and James are shown in bed, under the covers, but he rejects her suggestion of sex; Kelly asks Beau not to sleep with anyone other than her and suggests she no longer has sex with her husband; kissing; a band mate asks Beau and Chiles to sleep with each other "and get it over with"; Kelly and Beau are shown kissing, naked from the shoulders up; Kelly enters her hotel room in a towel, and sees James there; drinking in the hotel room, after which Kelly does a strip show; Beau and Chiles kiss and have sex, although only Chiles' lower back is shown; Kelly has sex with a third man; song lyrics refer to a girl and "a brass pole" and ask "how'd she learn to do that?"; lyrics also include "shake that thing."
  • Violence/Crime: Kelly received a package with a bloody baby doll, and the words "baby killer" on it; Kelly hits James; Kelly and Beau hop a freight car , and she joyfully shouts that she's breaking the law; James punches Beau; vomiting.
  • Religion: Kelly wears a cross pendant; James tells Kelly that he thought her voice sounded like the angels, and that he'd died and gone to heaven upon hearing it; song lyrics state a singer's struggle with "the devil's lies and what the Good Book says"; asked who her idol is, Chiles says, "Jesus Christ"; a man says he was praying for Kelly.


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