If you're going to make a bad film, at least make it short. "Country Strong" drags out its tedious show-business melodrama to an indefensible two hours. Often one hears of messed-up movies where miles of footage wound up on the cutting-room floor. In the case of "Country Strong," too much remained on the reel.
The film is bolted together out of bits and pieces of old backstage musicals. It seems not so much written as assembled from a do-it-yourself kit. Gwyneth Paltrow is Kelly, a sputtering, vodka-soaked superstar looking for a big comeback. A year earlier, she stumbled dead drunk off a Dallas stage, derailing her career and miscarrying her child. Actual country idol Tim McGraw does a non-singing turn as James, Kelly's supportive but opportunistic husband/manager. "Tron" biker boy Garrett Hedlund is Beau, a sweet-singin' honky-tonk hunk. "Gossip Girl's" Leighton Meester is Chiles, a "country Barbie" beauty queen with her eye on Kelly's spotlight.
The women and men have designs on each other for personal enjoyment or career gains, but writer/director Shana Feste's garbled film makes it difficult to care who comes out ahead. When Beau and Chiles wind up as Kelly's opening acts on her comeback tour, the crosscurrents of distrust, jealousy and lust ought to clash in a way that raises the emotional stakes. Instead the characters strike up fleeting alliances of convenience that are reshuffled with each new chapter of the story.
The dramatic beats are as predictable as 10-gallon hats and big belt buckles at a Toby Keith concert. Add to this Feste's Screenplay 101 grasp of metaphor -- Kelly's fragile nature is embodied by the wounded bird she finds on the grounds of her rehab clinic and carries ever after in a cigar box -- and viewing the film becomes sheer drudgery. If it were a book, you'd have to force yourself to finish it.
Paltrow, an Oscar winner who has never found a worthy star vehicle, clearly was drawn to the film as a showcase for her singing and acting talents, which are considerable. But "Country Strong" serves her poorly, with hackneyed scenes of mascara-smudging breakdowns, boozy debauches, glitz-a-rama concert numbers and a brazenly manipulative one-to-one performance for a Make-A-Wish cancer kid. There's even a scene where she is supposed to upchuck in a garbage can, which may be the most singularly unconvincing moment in Paltrow's career. Feste also wrote and directed 2009's Pierce Brosnan dead child tearjerker "The Greatest" (it wasn't). She didn't have much to backslide from, but she managed. "Country Strong" is awfully weak.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186