A (very) little bit country
"When you're looking at me, you're looking at country," proclaims Sissy Spacek's Loretta Lynn in 1980's Coal Miner's Daughter, a movie that suffers from its share of dramatic problems, but understands every inch of that statement and what drove that woman to make it. "I won't stay down long, 'cause I'm country strong," sings Gwyneth Paltrow's Kelly Canter in Country Strong, looking for that same iconic register, but not finding it. The simple fact is, though everybody clearly did their homework and is doing all the can to get all the notes right, it feels like the people making Country Strong don't actually understand country music; worse still, like they don't take it seriously enough to deem it worthy of understanding.
I do not know, of course, whether writer-director Shana Feste has any particular feelings towards country music at all, though I do know that her main inspiration in creating Kelly and her thorny personal history was Britney Spears. Which, we can all agree, does not bode well for the film's country music bona fides. But pressing on: Kelly Canter, we soon learn, is a massive star just about ending her stint in rehab, after a horrible night of onstage drunkenness in Dallas resulted in the near-end of her career and the end of her five-month pregnancy. Her manager husband, James (Tim McGraw), thinks she's ready for a comeback tour; her lover, Beau (Garrett Hedlund), a small-time singer and writer working as an orderly at the rehab center, disagrees. But James get what James wants, and they're soon off on a multi-city tour, with Beau on hand to act as opening act alongside beauty queen Chiles (rhymes with "miles") Stanton (Leighton Meester), whose desire to be a great pop country star almost outweighs her crippling stagefright. Also along for the ride is a quail chick that Kelly was tending in rehab, that James has since taken over.
Thus begins a massively undernourished four-pronged character study, a perplexing blend of threadbare narrative tropes assembled without any imagination or, crucially, any fun: though early on, it feels like some of the plot elements are going to be treated with campy absurdity (Chiles's broadly-painted neuroses, or that damn bird), it becomes increasingly clear that Feste doesn't really have the self-assurance - or, frankly, the talent - to play with the material at all. There's no way to keep a plot with this many drunken diva meltdowns from being at least a little campy, mind you, but the film's tone is too relentlessly mortuary for it to justify itself much at all on those grounds.
As the plot grinds along, it becomes harder and harder to state with any certainty that we know anything about any of these characters - least of all James, who goes from domineering puppet-master to deeply concerned husband and back in the span of a scene - or that there's anything to know about them at all. This is very much the kind of script in which a detail will be trotted out because it adds some oomph to this one scene, but its ability to cast a light on what we already know about the characters, or to influence what we later think of them, is entirely negligible. Whether it's James sexual revulsion with Kelly, Beau's disgust with commercial music, or Chiles's... so many things about Chiles, details pile up arbitrarily and without any impact. These characters aren't complete, they are a bunch of ideas in search of some connecting tissue (not to keep harping on it, but James especially is a problem: when that much drama is driven a character that the movie simply cannot make up its mind about, the story is going to suffer for it, end of story).
That leaves the movie's qualities as a country musical: and I'll say this much for the decent-sized chunk of original songs: they sound the part, more or less. The much-publicised title track is much the weakest of them all, consisting as it does of seemingly endless repetitions of the line "I'm country strong!" following a single chorus, but Kelly's big end-of-movie showstopper "Coming Home" isn't too bad (which was enough to get it an Oscar nomination); I think I'd have to go with "Timing Is Everything", presented in the movie as proof of Kelly's sublime ability to write lyrics on the spur of the moment (itself one of those character details that crops up for no reason and vanishes, only to reappear for no reason when Kelly visits a kid with leukemia; a scene that further includes the strangest & most inexplicable example of James's emotional constipation in the whole movie. It just keeps building and building like that, one entirely meaningless splat of character after another, for the whole movie), as the one that sounds the most like an actual country song.
Paltrow and Hedlund both sound like they practiced quite a lot to sound as country as they could: Hedlund's gravelly Kris Kristofferson knock-off voice is a little on the silly side, but Paltrow actually acquits herself rather better than anyone ought to have predicted (Meester is playing a character meant to have a thin, pop-friendly voice, and succeeds). Shockingly, McGraw is given no chance at all to sing - maybe it was the fear that he'd overshadow the others? I don't really know - but beyond that, at least Country Strong sounds alright.
And if you're listening to the album and not watching the movie, that's surely enough. But the movie itself, that's a different thing. After two hours of the thing, it's never clear whether Feste actually like country music; but I can't shake the feeling that she views the whole scene as a little bit tacky. And mercenary: Author Stand-In Beau gets a couple big moments where he pouts about how shitty and false country has gotten since the great old voices have died out, and though she tries to give all the main characters equal time, Feste certainly agrees that Chiles, embodiment of New Country, is at best an object of high-spirited derision. Which is fair (I tend to agree that country has been on a steady if gradual downswing since the '70s), but a bit snitty, and with the non-singing moments of Paltrow's performance coming across as supercilious as they do, it's awfully tempting to say that Country Strong feels that it's better than the culture it depicts. Any way you cut it, that's a deadly place for a movie to find itself: not just because nobody wants a smug movie, but because it's a surefire recipe for insincerity. Which Country Strong, awash in one achingly melodramatic moment with exactly no emotional impact after another, is to its very bones: staggeringly insincere. Hate country music or love it, you can't say that it's anything but completely earnest, so that insincerity might be the most annoying thing of all about the film.