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Review: Country Strong is strained corn

January 20, 2011

A modern-day melodrama set in the world of country music, “Country Strong” stars Oscar-winner Gwyneth Paltrow as Kelly Cantor, a singing superstar trying to recover from a personal and professional setback.
Real-life country singer Tim McGraw plays her manager-husband, James, anxious to get his songbird aloft again after alcoholism grounded her career.
Along for the ride as opening acts on Kelly’s big-stakes comeback tour are two musical greenhorns, beauty queen Chiles (Leighton Meister from TV’s “Gossip Girl”) and cowboy-hatted hunk Beau (Garret Hedlund, fresh from “Tron”).
Beau has been bedding Kelly on the sly, and Kelly’s pretty sure cutie-pie Chiles has her sights on James. How will this romantic rectangle shake out once the tour bus hits the highway? Will Kelly reclaim her country crown? Or will the young “country Barbie” upstage her---and take her man, to boot?
The good news: Paltrow, Meister and Hedlund really can sing. And sing they do, digging in convincingly to the sturdy soundtrack of catchy original songs penned by some of Nashville’s top tunesmiths.
But the rest of “Country Strong” is an all-over-the place mess of show-business clichés, clunky character stereotypes and a disjointed storyline that makes it impossible to connect all the scattered, implausible dots.
Paltrow’s character has two basic settings---drunk and depressed---but the actress does what she can with such a limited, morose palette.
We’re told that she’s a “six-time Grammy winner,” but nothing we see or hear supports why we should believe it. Likewise, when a newspaper raves that newcomer Chiles is “the new Carrie Underwood,” it confounds everything we’ve come to know about her character’s debilitating lack of onstage confidence and charisma.
Country fans, especially those whose knowledge of the format goes deeper than the week’s Top 40 countdown, will enjoy seeing some familiar faces in the mix, including singer-songwriter Jim Lauderdale and steel guitarist Chris Scruggs (Earl’s grandson) as musicians in Beau’s band, Ed Bruce as a scruffy nightclub owner, and Lari White, who had her moment in the musical spotlight in the 1990s, as a makeup artist.
At one point, Kelly vows to overcome the mess she’s made. “I’m stronger than this!” she says. (Cue the title track.)
But alas, despite her rally for the big concert finale, she’s not---and neither is the movie.
This cinema corn falls far short of the inspiring story of triumph and tragedy it wants viewers to buy. Too much about “Country Strong” is simply too weak and wobbly to hit the high dramatic notes to which it aspires.

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