REVIEW: Gwyneth Paltrow Weighs the Price of Fame in Jumbled But Heartfelt Country Strong
Perhaps only hip hop rivals country music in its obsession with authenticity. The mainstream reckoned with both genres in the 1990s, and in the fallout some purist concessions were made: Top 40 crossovers like Garth Brooks and Billy Ray Cyrus were not fake country but new country. Success is plenty real, after all -- especially in the form of millions of record sales -- as are its pitfalls. Oscars are pretty real too, as the stars of many Nashville-flavored films well know. While filming her own country epic in that city this past winter, Gwyneth Paltrow probably shed a few extra inky tears in honor of Jeff Bridges's Oscar win for his similarly screwed up songbird in Crazy Heart.
Like that film, Country Strong, writer/director Shana Feste's follow-up to The Greatest, is highly invested in the elastic border between "true" country and that manufactured for the charts. Kelly Canter (Paltrow) has staked a fiefdom straddling that border, and the divide seems to have ruined her life. A Grammy-winner and hit-maker, Kelly is about to be sprung from the rehab where she has waited out the aftermath of an alcoholic meltdown during a Dallas concert several months prior: It ended her pregnancy in its second trimester. During her interactions with Beau (Garrett Hedlund), an orderly at the facility who sings his own songs at the local drink on weekends, Kelly's country paradox emerges: She helps him finish a song with an ease and authority meant to signify authentic talent -- the kind that buys you an ivory tour bus and double strands of real diamonds that start to look like a high-end homing collar.
Beau is our ambassador of true country grit in Country Strong, and it is mainly through his eyes -- specifically his adoring and approving gaze -- that Kelly's value is confirmed. The center of a movie that crosses between characters, triangulated relationships, and the transubstantiating line between backstage and onstage with sometimes dizzying speed, Hedlund organizes the women and the themes swirling around him by the sheer force of moral and behavioral constancy and a pair of radiant blue eyes. He seems real, in other words -- a feat of organic consistency that feels both obvious and a little miraculous in a film that alternates between moments of estimable grace and clunkers as phony as the Lee Press-on Nail Kelly claims to have baked into her first meatloaf.
Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester) is a pageant circuit cast-off with a pretty voice who longs for a lot of the things Kelly has, not least of all those diamonds. Initially set up as the ultimate fake to Beau's real thing, Chiles becomes Kelly's apprentice, counterpart, and competitor when she is asked, along with Beau, to open for the shaky star on a three-date comeback tour. The tour is orchestrated by Kelly's husband and manager James, who is played with tenderness and a kind of grim tenacity by Tim McGraw. The character with the least glory and the highest degree of difficulty, James is part svengali, part cuckold; for much of the film it doesn't seem like he will overcome the star-is-born j'accusations native to his type and emerge as something more. James is the one who pressures Kelly out of rehab and into the tour; he's also part of the coterie who frog-marches her to the stage after her first relapse.
What is Kelly's problem? Feste skywrites some hints during Kelly's first disastrous concert, thrusting her between a roaring crowd and a hideously magnified image of herself flanked by billboard-sized flags. Kelly begins babbling about how much fun it must be to be a star -- an actual, ball-of-fire star, though the irony is as garish as her backdrop -- then dissolves into mini-dressed goo. Was Kelly once an ingenuous, entitled young comer like Chiles, whom she later advises about things like sweat-resistant fabric and falling in love? (The extra-cinematic ingénue/veteran resonances are potent, though Feste's reference to Meester's hardscrabble background feels backwards; times have truly changed if having parents in prison detracts from your country cred.) Some -- including Kelly herself -- speculate she's just crazy. Nah, says Beau: "She's the only honest one here." Later he fires another hollow bullet at the same target, telling Kelly that love and fame can't coexist, and it's trying to force them to that's making her act nuttier than a Skippy factory.
The hot potato-ing of Kelly's damage is a shame, because Feste comes close to setting up a tortured love triangle involving the notions of passion, talent, and fame, where finding the right combination may be both necessary for artists -- who feel like their "true" selves, paradoxically, only while performing -- and impossible. It's an old formula with a new formulation, and when the story hits its stride, Country Strong rides pretty high in the saddle, confident in the remarkably realized world Feste has created for her characters. And yet the script bobbles with increasing regularity, notably when it calls on the redoubtable Beau to do some third-act dirty work (diamonds and a career-killing proposal are involved) that clarifies the plot but confuses its themes.
Kelly's story may amount to little more than a ride on the tragic stardom train, but Paltrow has moments of both great charisma and startling pathos, and man, does Feste love to drive them home. Kelly comes alive in moments, while the others -- even poor James -- are more fully, consistently realized characters. Meant perhaps to reflect the plight of those who become performing machines, Kelly's refractions serve mainly to highlight the fault lines in this deeply, dangerously earnest take on truth and beauty in trouble.