To prepare for her role as an alcoholic singer in “Country Strong,” Gwyneth Paltrow spent months learning how to play the guitar, and probably also drinking a lot. Seeing her on stage in the movie, strummin’ and singin’ like an old pro, you’d never know she wasn’t actually a country music star.
Too bad she went to such great lengths to prepare for such a lousy movie. “Country Strong,” written and directed by Shana Feste (whose debut, “The Greatest,” also had a weak script), is a dull mess of underdeveloped characters, unmotivated action, mawkish story lines, and Texans. To ponder its melodramatic nonsense is to be further baffled by it.
Paltrow — who is not the star of the film, by the way, but more on that later — plays Kelly Canter, a country sensation who has been in rehab ever since An Incident at a concert in Dallas a year ago. Kelly’s cold-fish husband and manager, James (Tim McGraw), takes her out of the facility a month ahead of schedule because he’s eager to put her on tour again, because he’s a creep.
While she was rehabilitating, Kelly became friends with Beau Hutton (Garrett Hedlund), a scruffy, smoldering young orderly and Heath-Ledger-in-“Brokeback-Mountain” lookalike with musical aspirations of his own. Kelly wants Beau to be her opening act for three big shows in Houston, Austin, and Dallas, but James would prefer to book Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester), a beauty queen with paralyzing stage fright and, as far as we can tell, almost no actual experience as a performer.
Somehow, Beau and Chiles wind up both joining the tour.
Also, Chiles’ stage fright is pretty hit-or-miss. It seems to clear up when Beau sings with her, even though she hates Beau.
Also, for some reason Beau — who performs at local honky-tonks and wants to get ahead in the industry — has to be talked into going on tour with Kelly.
Well, Kelly starts drinking again, hilariously, just before the first show. Her career might not recover from this latest setback — but for the most part the movie isn’t interested in her anyway. The main character is actually Beau. No one has more screen time than he does. Poor Garrett Hedlund is billed third, after Paltrow and McGraw, but it’s his movie.
Once again, though: too bad it’s such a lousy one. Kelly, James, Beau, and Chiles are all Southern-fried jerks, a confederacy of a-holes who continually hurt one another. Beau has the hots for Kelly one minute but not the next; Chiles and Beau might have a thing, and then maybe not; James is flirting with Chiles, which upsets Kelly … until suddenly it doesn’t, and then maybe James has lost interest anyway. Kelly sees Chiles as a threat in one scene, warms up to her in another, disses her in the next. Kelly and James are on the verge of breaking up here, seething with resentment there, content to ignore each other for the sake of her career there, happily dancing here. Chiles and Beau are alternately friendly and cruel to each other, depending on how the coin toss went when Shana Feste sat down to write that particular scene.
In a nutshell, this is essentially a movie about relationships, and yet not one of the relationships rings true, or even makes sense.
I should also mention that Kelly has been caring for a helpless baby bird that lost its mother. THIS IS A METAPHOR.
“Country Strong” does feature some toe-tapping songs, and the performances are all solid (even if the characters being performed are awful). It just lacks coherence, that’s all. Oh, and a point. Oh, and any sense of fun. Oh, and a guy who looks like Heath Ledger in “Brokeback Mountain” — no, wait, it has that, never mind.
D+ (1 hr., 52 min.; )