"Country Strong" Review: Gywneth Paltrow Gets Run For Her Money
NEW YORK (CBS) In director Shana Feste's "Country Strong," Gwyneth Paltrow delivers what is easily her best dramatic performance to date, but so does her co-star, the rising star Garrett Hedlund.
More than a decade after her 1998 Academy Award-winning performance in "Shakespeare in Love," Paltrow returns to a leading role that casts her in the spotlight and challenges her with a richly layered and deeply flawed character.
Paltrow plays Kelly Canter, a country music star, who is forced by her manager-husband James (Tim MGraw) to leave rehab (where she has been placed for alcoholism) before she is mentally or physically ready. Determined to stage a come-back, McGraw books a three-gig tour ending in Dallas, where the singer previously succumbed to her alcohol addiction, collapsing on stage and losing the baby she was carrying.
Paltrow's relationship with her husband is broken, in part because of her addiction and the loss of their unborn baby, but also because of Beau (Garett Hedlund), a sponsor she grows emotionally and physically attached to while in rehab. The relationship is further complicated when Beau, who happens to be an incredible singer, becomes one of the opening acts on the comeback tour.
Realizing the stabilizing effect Beau has on his wife, McGraw's character reluctantly agrees, but adds to the drama by also booking a young beauty-pageant winner and aspiring singer (Leighton Meester). Still frail from the trauma, Kelly sees James' prot???g??? as a threat to her career and her marriage and her comeback soon spirals downhill In short : she's a hot country mess.
Not since the 2000 film "Duets," in which she sang with Huey Lewis, have we seen Paltrow perform on stage. She proves completely credible as a country singer, singing and playing the guitar and strutting as if she were in her element.
Paltrow is helped by the group of talented songwriters who have created music and lyrics for her, Hedlund and Meester that can stand alone as country hits. Her versatility as an actress is highlighted by her nuanced performance as a woman tormented by the inner demons that plague her celebrity life. Though at times Feste's storytelling is clich???, Paltrow's performance never crosses that line and stays clear of melodrama.
Equally, McGraw as the tormented husband and manager, struggling to deal with his wife's professional and personal shortcomings, delivers a strong, measured performance, squarely inhabiting his actor's guise and demonstrating his best acting work yet. Indeed, country singer turned actor McGraw, a winner of three Grammys, is the only principal who does not sing throughout the film (though he does perform on the soundtrack in a duet with Paltrow).
If Gwyneth Paltrow serves as the film's headliner, then Hedlund is clearly its heart. Coming off a somewhat mediocre performance in "Tron: Legacy", Hedlund delivers the exact opposite in "Country Strong." He is a scene stealer and this film will serve as a turning point in his career, pushing him into the caliber of leading man.
He possesses the good looks and charisma to deliver as a young country crooner who encounters success yet remains unaffected and vulnerable, making him a breath of fresh air and giving Paltrow a run for her money. Meester, too, best known for her television character Blair on CW's "Gossip Girl", earns her stripes as a big-screen actress with her performance as Chiles Stanton, an unsure-of-herself young ing???nue, captivated by the bright lights and swept away by the lure of fame.
Where the film most glaringly shows its flaws is in the clich???d cript. Feste's strength lies in her ability to weave together the four main characters, each conflicted and at a crossroad in life, into one complete story. To do so, however, she falls back on scenarios that have been seen and done before. There is nothing novel in the way she approaches the subject matter of the fallen star attempting a comeback
. Some of the scenes are contrived. For example, why leave an alcohol-addicted performer alone in her dressing room moments before she is to perform, when she has a history of drinking before a show? Or at least, hide the vodka.
Feste also introduces a baby bird that Kelly finds while at rehab and carries with her in a box while on tour, clearly a metaphor - but a poor one - for her lost child. Most convenient of all for her storytelling, Beau, a naturally gifted aspiring country singer, works in the same rehab center Paltrow enters..
Despite the obvious flaws, the actors manage to inject believability into their characters, allowing them to be raw and less than perfect. That vulnerability, coupled with fresh music and enthusiastic, heartfelt acting and vocal performances all round, make "Country Strong" worth tuning into.
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