A movie about a recovering-alcoholic country music star, eh? Let’s see how this goes. Star’s producer-husband pulls her out of rehab early to push her back onstage in pursuit of money. Star drags along aspiring singer-songwriter she met in rehab for support. Star competes with bubble-headed pretty young up-and-comer, who producer-husband is nailing on the side. Star gets support from — and falls in love with — singer-songwriter. Star and singer-songwriter come out on top, leaving greedy producer-husband and pretty ditz in their wake.
Well, at least that’s the obvious path a lesser movie would take. With Country Strong, writer-director Shana Feste takes it in pretty much the exact opposite direction, and she deserves commendations for her efforts in what could have been a very predictable late entry in Oscar season.
The general outline does hold. Kelly Canter (Gwyneth Paltrow) is the appropriately-named alcoholic country music star. She’s a year out from a disastrous performance in Dallas where, with a BAC of 0.19, she fell from the stage. The incident brought her career to a crashing halt, along with her five-month pregnancy.
So as the film opens she’s in rehab, and shes made friends with an orderly, Beau Hutton (Garrett Hedlund). He spends his nights playing in working-class country bars around Nashville, and he’s got a pretty weary thing going for himself. He’s pretty much a fixture of the local scene, which means brushing up against pageant queen Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester). Chiles wants a country singing career for herself, despite a colossal and long-running case of stage-fright.
Enter Kelly’s husband James (Tim McGraw), who decides to pull Kelly out of rehab for an “encore” three-city tour through Texas, trying to salvage her career before it’s too late. Beau objects that she’s not ready yet, but he can’t do much to stop it. James wants Chiles as an opening act, while Kelly asks that Beau come along. When Beau manages to snap Chiles out of her deer-in-headlights expression at an audition gig, they both get their way. And the whole crew careens not-so-merrily off onto the road.
The impressive thing is the way the script cuts almost directly against the usual narrative expectations. Just for starters, Beau is not motivated out of some high-minded concern for Kelly’s well-being; he’s been sleeping with her and wants to keep her around. And despite heavy hints that some people have their suspicions, there’s no evidence that James and Chiles are having an affair of any sort.
Beau is not the noble, admirable man we — and Kelly — expect him to be. But he’s not really a complete jerk either; he’s just self-interested first and foremost. James is too, in his own way, though he really does believe that the encore tour is the best thing for Kelly and not just for his account balance. Chiles is the most honest person around, with much more depth and insight than we might expect, though it’s still tempered with an ingenue’s naïveté.
Kelly, though, is the star, and she’s the most fleshed-out character around. She’s also the one furthest from our expectations. This is no hillbilly heroine, who’s gotten knocked around and yet makes a spectacular recovery. This is a profoundly damaged person, with a lot of un-dealt-with pain still haunting her, and ultimately she’s the one responsible for her own problems. It’s to Paltrow’s credit that she can take on a character who starts by looking washed-up and washed-out, and who never really redeems herself. She also performs admirably on the essential musical numbers, showing off the pipes that we haven’t heard since Duets, with the exception of a promotional guest appearance on Glee.
In short, if you expect the same movie we see every year around this time, you’ll be disappointed. If you want to see a common premise taken in a new direction, you could do a lot worse. I, for one, am looking forward to Feste’s next offering.
Worth it: yes.
Bechdel test: pass.