A tabloid-torn backstage soap opera is rendered with considerable empathy and emotional complexity in "Country Strong." Though conceived as a singing-acting showcase for Gwyneth Paltrow, tracing the downward spiral of a Nashville superstar who's lately produced fewer hits than headlines, this second feature from "The Greatest" writer-director Shana Feste is that rare ensemble piece in which all four principals are not only compellingly drawn but handled with an astute sense of dramatic balance. Buoyed by an expectedly fine soundtrack and obvious heartland appeal, Sony release (opening today before going wide Jan. 7) should strike chords beyond its built-in C&W fanbase.
Like an unabashedly corny tune delivered with enough warmth and sincerity to still hit the sweet spot, "Country Strong" looks derivative on paper but plays out with a startling depth of feeling -- no small feat, considering it feels pieced together from snippets of every behind-the-scenes meller ever spun. At times resembling a Texas-touring "All About Eve," the film also recalls last year's "Crazy Heart," with its aching lament for a musician brought low by booze and bad luck. Feste has said the story was inspired by Britney Spears' media woes; intended or not, parallels to the troubled personal life of country star Mindy McCrea are also there for the taking.
Singer-songwriter Kelly Canter (Paltrow) is sprung from rehab by her husband-manager, James (Tim McGraw), who's determined to salvage her career with a tour of Austin, Houston and finally Dallas -- the city where, during a fateful concert several months earlier, a drunken Kelly took a tumble and suffered a miscarriage. Kelly and James' marriage still hasn't recovered from the blow, spurring the moody songstress to seek comfort in the arms of up-and-coming crooner Beau Hutton (Garrett Hedlund), even as she voices her jealous distrust of Chiles (rhymes with "wiles") Stanton (Leighton Meester), a former beauty queen and aspiring singer who's caught James' eye.
In establishing these four personalities and arranging them in a configuration that will yield maximum dramatic sparks, the script doesn't shy away from coincidence (Beau met Kelly while working at her rehab facility) or predictability. Inevitably, Beau and Chiles join Kelly's tour as opening acts, at which point their initially competitive dynamic flowers into romance, sending Kelly into further depths of despair and jeopardizing her attempted comeback.
But the film's saving grace is that its personalities always ring true even when its situations don't. Feste sees her characters whole, and she has an unusual knack for finding her way into a scene and locating its emotional truth, often indirectly: Beau and Kelly's first moment onscreen -- in which they playfully improvise a song during an impromptu jam session -- shows how the easy chemistry between two actors can turn a scripted moment into one of great tenderness and privileged intimacy.
Every significant relationship in the film has its own uniquely tense dynamic: Kelly and James' struggle to revive a marriage weighed down by professional obligations; James and Beau's intense mutual antipathy; Kelly's icy treatment of Chiles, who returns the cold shoulder with wide-eyed admiration; and Beau and Chiles' very different reactions to their tantalizing first brushes with fame.
Notably, while Kelly's battle with the bottle is effectively dramatized (if marred by an excess of eyeliner in Paltrow's numerous crying scenes), the counterbalance provided by the other characters keeps the story from becoming a straightforward saga of addiction and recovery. And although Kelly's fragile state is well served by Paltrow's natural vulnerability, the actress is at her best in those brave, fleeting moments when this down-and-out diva manages to summon a strength and resilience she didn't realize she still had in her.
Making use of a Southern drawl almost as thick as his mustache, Hedlund registers much more boldly here than in the current "Tron: Legacy," playing a guy whose impulsive need to rescue the women closest to him doesn't always result in the wisest decisions. Even more impressive is Meester ("Gossip Girl"), who not only looks and sounds like a country star but movingly exposes the talented yet insecure young woman beneath Chiles' shallow-princess veneer.
Both Hedlund and Meester get to show off their singing chops, particularly in the duet "Give in to Me" -- one of several original tunes selected by Feste and music supervisor Randall Poster with a keen ear for the way a song can amplify a film's emotional undercurrents. The fact that Kelly herself has trouble performing allows Paltrow to keep her lovely voice under wraps early on, though she rightly conquers her climactic moments in the spotlight.
McGraw, ironically the one actor not called upon to perform, serves in a sense as the film's good-faith talisman, authenticating its chosen milieu. Set primarily in Texas but shot entirely in Nashville, the film boasts solid but not lavish production values; crucially, its concert sequences nail the flag-waving, Jesus-loving heartbeat of country music without a trace of condescension.