"Country Strong" is not a great film, but it's a wonderful movie. Sure, it's a television-level script directed like a TV movie. Sure, it's at times schmaltzy and conventional as all get out. But like great country music, "Country Strong" is both superficial and in touch with deep wellsprings of feeling. It may be over-simplified, but it's also profoundly in touch with the kinds of things everyone struggles with in life. Young writer/director Shana Feste will never be mistaken for an intellectual and probably will never win Oscars (or even be nominated), but she demonstrates a Spielberg-esque mastery of conventional filmmaking that could catapult her to the big leagues. She is a filmmaker to watch.
Gwyneth Paltrow, in one of the biggest casting surprises in years, does a wonderful job playing a country-music superstar just beginning to show signs of age. She sings on her own, but more importantly, Paltrow pulls off the acting in a compelling and seemingly effortless way. It's impressive that at this stage in her career she would stretch herself in exciting new ways. Also surprising is the casting of Leighton Meester as Paltrow's young rival. How does one go from "Gossip Girl" to country music and pull both of them off? All indications are that Meester will have a huge career in the movies. She's a natural.
Rounding out the cast are singer/actor Tim McGraw ("The Blind Side"), playing Paltrow's husband and manager, and up-and-coming actor Garrett Hedlund ("Troy," "Four Brothers") as Paltrow's May-December boyfriend.
At the start of the movie, we meet the childless Kelly Canter (Paltrow) as she's getting out of rehab. She has just had some sort of breakdown in public that jeopardizes her career, and her husband (McGraw) is trying to orchestrate a comeback tour for her. She wants the young singer she met in rehab (Hedlund) to be her opening act, but he wants a young female singer (Meester) to open.
Gradually, we learn more about this complex marriage. Feste does a great job conveying how much they love each other but also reveals the difficulty they have sleeping together. Feste has a gift for exploring the ocean of feelings that can occur in the bedroom. Nothing can cut you in half like a lover who continually turns his head when you try to kiss him. In many ways this marriage is over. But in many other ways it's as strong as ever. What does one do in that situation?
One of the major sub-plots concerns the development of Canter's young rival, Chiles Stanton (Meester). At first, she's intensely insecure and almost incapable of singing on stage, but with a little coaching from Hedlund her performances begin to soar. One of the most beautiful moments in the film is when Stanton starts to realize that she has touched an audience of thousands. She is at first almost knocked over by their applause, not understanding it. But then it dawns on her what is really going on. This scene has such tenderness that it reduced me and many of those around me to tears.
Another sub-plot centers on Canter's alcoholism, which is severe. We watch her go through several painful relapses, which do become a bit tiresome cinematically. Finally, there's a huge melodrama at the end that goes way over the top, weakening the film. But my companion and I walked out remembering the wonderful parts of the movie and the great music. This made us feel like we were walking on air. Sometimes it's a non-intellectual movie that hits the spot like nothing else can.