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"Country Strong" Review

It's easy to make fun of the title of Country Strong - which itself sounds like the Hulk titled it - with things like Country Wrong or Country Weak or Country Cheese and the idea of Hollywood blue blood and English resident (married to the singer of Radiohead Lite) Gwyneth Paltrow launching a side career as a country singer has gathered hoots, but the main problem the movie has is a scattered, trope-laden script that stumbles along aimlessly before doing something at the end which turned a mediocre movie into something epically terrible.

Since I'm going to have to spoil the living daylights about the plot, for those unwilling to heed my good advice and skip this movie, this is the end of the road for you. Gwynnie can sing; Garrett Hedlund is actually quite good acting and singing, a shock considering he was last seen utterly stinking up the Grid in TRON Legacy; Leighton Meester almost shakes her Gossip Girl image, but is much better singing; but, overall the movie is a mess before it veers into disaster.

Score: 3/10. Skip it.

OK, here's where the SPOILERS begin, so you've been warned. To understand what's wrong with Country Strong, you have to look at the trailer to see how it was sold:

OK, got that? It looks like a redemption story with All About Eve elements. Gwyneth overcomes scheming rookie Blair with the help of young country hunk Beau. Did you catch the part where Beau is the actual protagonist and Gwyneth KILLS HERSELF about a minute after telling Blair, "That's how it's done."? They show someone slumping to the floor - that would be Tim McGraw, real-life country star who isn't a musician here and is married in real life to Faith Hill whom Gwyneth is clearly patterned after - at the news of her death, but it comes from nowhere in the movie. Movies don't need to have happy endings, but this is so cheap and meaningless it just shows how slipshod the storytelling is.

Let's start from the beginning: It opens with Beau and his band playing for a smattering of oldsters at a honky tonk. He then goes to work and his clothes indicate he's some sort of orderly. He's told to stay away from Gwyneth, so of course we cut directly to him and her collaborating on a song, passing an acoustic back and forth during an obvious roll in the sack. What's their relationship? We don't know. Tim comes in and asks what's going on and announces that she's checking out. Beau protests that it's a month too early and he's her sponsor. OK, she's in rehab and he's her sponsor and apparently f*ck buddy. Moving on...

While Tim and Faith (heh) are driving out, we hear on the radio a news report that she was coming out of rehab after an incident in Dallas several months before in which she was arrested for drunk and disorderly conduct while 5-1/2 months pregnant during a show. Hmmm, sounds bad. What happened to the baby? Tim addresses the media that she's ready to get back on the road. So he's her manager? OK.

Next thing, they're in bed together, but it's obviously chilly between them. Oh, he's her husband and manager. Happens all the time. She wants to talk about Dallas but he doesn't. I'm guessing she lost the baby - when someone gives her a "gift" of a box with a bloody doll inside with a note reading "BABY KILLER!" that seals it - but Tim says something about "putting him down" like they have a kid. What the heck is going on here?

We then see Tim checking out potential opener Beau and Blair at some Nashville bar. Blair is a former beauty queen prone to stage fright and she freezes until Beau bails her out. Tim offers them the opening slots on Faith's comeback tour. Huh? Some guy who appears to be banging your wife and a scared girl are the best you can get? After the doll incident, Faith freaks out on stage and starts crying, ending the show and she disappears on a second gig leaving the giant arena gig in Dallas on the line. Fortunately, Faith makes out with the promoter of the gig and it's back on? WTFF?!?

All along, there seem to be TWO triangles going on: Tim-Faith-Beau and Faith-Beau-Blair. There's an attraction between the kids and after a night of drinking - wait, wasn't he Faith's rehab sponsor?!? - they almost seal the deal, but Faith is floating around the perimeter and I found myself shopping for video games online during this long stretch of nothing.

Blah-blah-woof-woof and the Big Show goes down. Beau rocks the house, Blair doesn't freeze up in a packed arena only a few gigs after tanking at the honky tonk, Faith comes out and puts on a triumphant performance, and after the show, she goes to her dressing room and locks the door. Beau notices she's not at the party and goes to her isolated dressing room, kicks in the door and finds her unconscious from an overdose of pills. Wait, WHAT?!?!??!

At this moment Country Strong jumps the shark, nukes the fridge, and makes me wonder what the whole movie was about and how everyone involved in the movie thought this was a good idea? Why did we spend two hours watching this woman try to redeem her life only to take it? A: Because she's not the main character, Beau is. It's not about Faith getting her life together, but Beau getting his career in gear, just like the trailer DIDN'T show. The whole marketing campaign is a bait and switch.

Now it may not have mattered if the movie managed to coherently tell its story, but it doesn't. We don't learn that Faith fell 10 feet off the stage in Dallas causing her to lose the baby until 80 minutes into the film. Why not mention that up front? How hard would it have been to have the radio report wrap all those details up in two sentences? "Not Faith Hill was released from rehab today, only months after an incident in Dallas in which an intoxicated, 5-1/2 month pregnant Not Faith Hill fell from the stage, causing a miscarriage." There, we're all up to speed and not scratching our heads.

There is also a subplot about an orphaned quail she finds on the facility's grounds that she's trying got nurture. Get it? The bird is her lost baby and need to be a mother. Except she takes the box it's in to the bar, gets drunk, and forgets it; something that we never see, is covered in dialogue and never factors into the story again. Again, huh? Did anyone look at a cut of the film before it was duped and sent to theaters? I'll bet I could recut the movie without any of that and it wouldn't be missed.

Because we are never clear about who is doing what and why, nothing ever gels. Hedlund is quite believable as Beau, with a strong baritone voice and charismatic manner and Gwyneth does what she can with the script and sings well, but it doesn't matter and the way she checks out is stupid. She could've slapped down Blair while walking offstage, gone to her dressing room, and had Tim come in to cheer her and say she's back and have her say, "No. I'm done. I'm retired and running off with Beau," or something to get her back in control of her life. Why suicide? Because it would've gotten Paltrow an Oscar nomination? That worked. Not.

Writer-director Shana Feste has no sense of how musicians actually think and act - lots of singing doesn't make it a musical - and the general confusion of the plot started at the script stage and didn't get better. As I detailed up top, we are thrown into a confusing set of relationships and have to unravel the facts as best we can. (This isn't Memento, dammit!)

Only waste your time on Country Strong if you want to see how NOT to tell a story.


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