By Pamela Zoslov
Sometimes a single scene in a movie provides a clue to what’s wrong with the movie as a whole. In Country Strong, a country-music melodrama in which Gwyneth Paltrow plays a superstar country singer attempting a comeback after an alcohol-fueled collapse, it’s a small jewel of a scene in which the singer, Kelly Canter, visits a cancer-stricken boy in his classroom as part of a public-relations effort with the Make-a-Wish Foundation. Paltrow’s gentle interaction with the star-struck child (Gabe Sipos), who’s bald from chemotherapy and wearing a little cowboy hat – is so touching, natural and sincere that it makes the histrionics of the rest of the movie seem irrelevant. If you do not grow a little teary as Kelly plays the boy a sweet song named for him (“Travis, May I Have This Dance?”) and dances him around the room, then you are made of sterner stuff than I.
The power of this scene suggests that Paltrow is miscast – willfully so — as a country-music star, as she was as an Englishwoman (Shakespeare in Love), a genius mathematician (Proof) and poet Sylvia Plath (Sylvia). One of the only roles for which Paltrow, with her inflexibly beautiful, patrician Faberge egg looks, seemed suitably cast was as the troubled daughter of a rich, eccentric family (The Royal Tenenbaums). However skillful her acting (and she does some superb work in Country Strong) and her carefully coached country-style singing, it’s hard to escape the impression that the beautiful blond post-debutante is slumming. Never was there a country star who looked like this – something you could not say about the plainer-looking Sissy Spacek as the hardscrabble Loretta Lynn in Coal Miner’s Daughter. Paltrow’s singing is serviceably good, but it lacks the distinctiveness that makes for country music greatness. How did this woman, we might well wonder, become a superstar?
We first encounter Kelly Canter in rehab, where she’s having a casual affair with Beau (Garrett Hedlund), a scruffy young part-time orderly and aspiring singer/songwriter. Her husband and manager, James (country star Tim McGraw), comes to collect Kelly before she’s fully rehabilitated, so she can embark on a big comeback tour, which will bring her back to Dallas, the site of a scandalous drunken onstage incident that caused her to miscarry their baby. So gentle is this damaged woman that she rescues a baby quail, which she carries around in a wooden cigar box. What caused Kelly’s breakdown is never clear, except that the burdens of stardom have taken their toll. “Love and fame can’t live in the same place,” the preternaturally wise Beau tells Kelly, a bit of wisdom belied every day by people who manage to be famous and loved (including, for example, Tim McGraw and Faith Hill).
James invites Beau to join the tour, along with ambitious, petite ex-beauty queen Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester), who has her heavily made-up eye on a career as a country-pop superstar A rather predictable backstage soap opera unfolds, with All About Eve jealousies, drunken relapses, romantic entanglements, punches to the face, and a plethora of creditable country songs, many performed by the budding duo of Beau and Chiles, whose burgeoning romance, in contrast to her own troubled marriage, adds to Kelly’s sadness. Although she can still get it together for one big, spectacular performance (with rather ridiculous choreography that has her prancing about in very short skirts), Kelly, like Margo Channing in All About Eve , knows she’s finished. In a late scene, she provides the rising star Chiles with a list of advice managing her career – passing the torch, and saying farewell not just to stardom, but to everything. If this were real life, and not a corny show-business melodrama, it would be obvious that Kelly could remake her career along the lines suggested by her lovely scene with little Travis – go back to basics, record a bluegrass album, make records for children, or teach music.
It is this movie’s misfortune that the star is a better actress than singer, and the supporting cast (McGraw, Hedlund and Meester) are all better singers than actors (and McGraw, the cast's only famous singer, doesn't sing a note). Still, even with its clichés and improbabilities (how do they mount those lavish tour productions with no rehearsal?), the movie has a good heart, a healthy dose of original music, and an affecting performance by Paltrow. It's not a good movie -- you knew that going in -- but if a movie can overcome my aversion to two things – modern country music and Gwyneth Paltrow — it must have something going for it.
Originally published on the Cleveland Movie Blog.