Loaded with denim-coated drama, Shana Feste's 'Country Strong' means well -- maybe too well -- as it chronicles the attempted resurrection of a maligned music career. It's a romantic rectangle fused with a showbiz melodrama, crammed full of cheers, jeers, sobs and songs and generally grounded by four performances that try, but can't always defeat, the cliches at hand.
Country superstar Kelly Canter (Gwyneth Paltrow) has six Grammys and seven platinum records to her name, but she's also saddled with a much-publicized drinking problem. That isn't going to stop her husband/manager, James (Tim McGraw), from prematurely yanking her out of rehab and sending her on a three-stop career-recovery tour across the great state of Texas -- a tour which ominously ends in Dallas. Kelly makes a plea for rehab employee/fledgling crooner Beau (Garrett Hedlund) to tag along; James, insistent on would-be beauty queen Chiles (Leighton Meester), recruits both to serve as opening acts. Also, there's a baby bird that Kelly's caring for (named after Loretta Lynn, naturally), but that's not important right now.
One drinks too much, one cares too much, one doesn't care enough, and the other's just happy to be along for the ride. In this world of country Barbies and cowboy Kens, no one's a clear-cut good or bad guy, to writer/director Feste's credit. They're all just trying to change, whether to escape honky-tonks or hard traumas, and no one character winds up gunning for another's career as one would typically expect in such a scenario. Beau's tempted to trade in his beat-up pick-up lifestyle for one of slick SUVs, but he'll have to contend with starlets like Chiles, who worship Carrie Underwood above Patsy Cline. Kelly's quite apparently cheating on James in the bedroom with Beau; he essentially returns the favor by giving stronger songs to Chiles in the recording studio.
Paltrow smiles and trembles in equal measure, only occasionally giving into hysterics and never quite shaking the sense that she's playing at yee-haw dress-up instead of being a bonafide charmer who lost her way. Meanwhile, McGraw looks like he's wearing a turtleneck even when he's not, so stiff and single-minded as he drags Kelly back into the spotlight. As the only real-life country singer in the cast, perhaps he contributed some backstage insight, but he doesn't so much as sing a note here. His son in 'Friday Night Lights,' Hedlund outshines him here with the right amount of charisma, a mile-wide self-righteous streak and the perfectly smoky voice for his more classically country tunes. Meester rounds the ensemble out with a nimble balance of cute-on-cue charm and paralyzing insecurity.
It's a bit of a pity that they're subjected to such disjointed drama. I've yet to mention the moments of stage fright, or the Make-A-Wish scene, or the painful reminders of What Happened in Dallas, and that damned bird (a clunky bit of symbolism mercifully abandoned about halfway in). Granted, when the characters do shut up and sing (regardless of whether or not the actors sing for themselves), the songs work in the vein of modern country pop and love ballads, and the intimidation and thrill of the packed-arena crowds resonates on nearly every occasion.
Another pity, though, that the tour and film lead to such a curiously ineffective climax. 'Country Strong' is certainly earnest -- in fact, it almost works as a decent if familiar story of comebacks and setbacks -- but then one bottle goes crashing against the wall and the emotional investment all but flies out the window.