If you’re a great hockey player and an absolutely wretched basketball player, you try out for the NHL, not the NBA. If you are a talented writer but can barely add two plus two, you sign up for the school newspaper, not the mathletes. It’s called playing to your strengths, and it extends to the movie industry to – you emphasize the greatest aspects of your film and minimize the weaknesses. This is not a method employed in Shana Feste’s Country Strong.
Though outfitted with strong chemistry between the film’s two leads, Gwyneth Paltrow and Garrett Hedlund, and having ample opportunity to create beautiful concert sequences, the movie simply never takes advantage. At best, Country Strong, with its endless number of betrayals and affairs, could be called a soap opera, but lacks the self-awareness required for it to be an entertaining one. Though the film does have its bright spots, it also doesn’t have the attention span to hold on to them and never gives the audience a reason to care about any of these characters.
In the film, Paltrow plays Kelly Canter, an immensely popular country star trying to make a comeback after an incidence of drunken and disorderly conduct put her career on hold and sent her to spend a stretch in rehab. Joining Kelly and her manager/husband, James (Tim McGraw) on tour as the opening acts are Beau Hutton (Hedlund), a deep-voiced singer-songwriter, and Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester), a beautiful, young vocalist with a pop-music inspired sound. As the short, three city tour goes on, the group is beset by conflict, be it from Beau and Kelly’s affair, or Kelly’s inability to control the demons from her past.
While many films are able to find success in creating dynamics between multiple characters, there’s always one relationship meant to anchor and focus the story. When we see singing and playing guitar together in the rehab center, Country Strong leads us to believe that relationship is between Beau and Kelly, but as the movie goes on, that mysteriously fades away making room for the Beau and Chiles part of the story to grow. Unfortunately Hedlund and Paltrow actually have a spark together on screen, while Hedlund and Meester don’t.
Not helping things are the concert scenes, which lack any sort of energy. While most concert films infuse power into the taping using multiple pans, shots of the crowd and, generally, a lot of camera movement, Feste’s camera never budges. Instead, most of the music sequences are a series of one shots with cuts in-between the different angles. Performing is where these characters are meant to be at their most vibrant, but it instead shows them at their dullest.
The biggest problem here is really more a matter of sympathy. When dealing with protagonists caught up in extramarital affairs, it becomes vital for the story to justify those unsavory action to the audience. In a futile attempt to do this, the closest the film gets to an antagonist is Kelly’s husband, James – the cuckold who feels detached from his wife after her irresponsible actions kill their unborn child. Without excuse, the relationship between Beau and Kelly doesn’t rise much higher than extreme selfishness, and these are people we’re supposed to care about.
With more sympathetic characters and focus, Shana Feste’s Country Strong could have been immensely successful. Yet it has neither of these qualities, and along the way it never really plays to its strengths. If the film has one sure fire hit in it, it’s that country fans will love the soundtrack. Then again, you don’t need to see the movie to enjoy that, do you?