Tuesday 24 October 2017

Movies: Country Strong **


The tragic female star has been a staple of country-music films since God was a child, but that doesn't stop Gwyneth Paltrow and writer/director Shana Feste from trotting her out again in this tinny and hackneyed melodrama.

Paltrow clearly saw the project as an opportunity to showcase her singing. She belts out a number of tunes during Country Strong, but the fact that she does so competently is entirely beside the point, because the character she plays is a walking, talking cliché.

When we first encounter her, Kelly Canter is holing up in rehab after a very public boozy meltdown which involved a disastrous implosion in front of 50,000 fans on an Austin stage.

She's a huge star but booze and drugs have blighted her life: her husband James (Tim McGraw) is pushing her into a comeback, but her minders at the rehab centre think it might all be happening too soon. Chief among these is Beau Hutton (Garrett Hedlund), an up-and-coming country singer who works days at the rehab centre and has fallen in love with Kelly.

In fact, they've been having an affair, and when Kelly leaves to begin a high-profile tour, she asks James to hire Beau to open her show. He agrees, but also hires a beautiful but nervous young female singer called Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester). James likes Chiles, but Chiles is keen on Beau, and he's still busy chasing after Kelly.

She seems cheerful enough in advance of her first show, but when she has a row with James, she dives into the nearest bottle, and falls apart halfway through her first song when she goes on stage, to the bemusement of her adoring fans.

James is determined that she completes the tour, but as she nears Austin, and the scene of her famous meltdown, it looks unlikely that things will be any better this time.

Although at first it seems as though James is going to be the film's pantomime villain, it soon becomes clear that fame, not a pushy husband, is the real scoundrel here. While Kelly is desperate to get clear of it, young Chiles craves it like a drug, and only Beau has the good sense to be ambivalent.

Country Strong lays on the Nashville glitter pretty thick, but is about as authentically country as Garth Brooks' silly hat. From the moment Paltrow smiles a wan smile and strums out a plaintive tune on her rehab bunk, it seems unlikely that Country Strong will trouble us with a moment's originality, and so it proves.

Sporting a tragic expression and a deep-fried Southern accent, Paltrow is totally miscast as the salty, boozy singer, and reminds one at times of a Barbie doll which has been decked out in gingham against its express wishes.

Unintentional comedy abounds, especially when Kelly hits the skids (she does so early and often) and reaches for the nearest litre bottle of bargain vodka. The music's pretty bland too, and we are only mildly diverted by the love story that develops latterly between the blandly handsome juvenile leads.

When you think of some of the fine country films that have been made -- Coal Miner's Daughter, for instance, or even the more recent Crazy Heart -- Country Strong looks pretty thin by comparison.

There's tragedy and heartache, of course -- this is Nashville, after all -- but no one seems all that cut up about it, least of all Paltrow, who greets the direst adversity with puzzling aplomb.

Her singing, as we mentioned, is competent but unremarkable. However, the rumour is she's about to embark on a solo recording career. You have been warned.

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