If there could only be one recent, low-budget but studio-distributed, made-in-Tennessee film about a female country music singer returning to her craft, it's a damn shame it's Country Strong and not Craig Brewer's long-shelved Maggie Lynn, which was once in line to be the follow-up to Black Snake Moan.
Starring Gwyneth Paltrow as Kelly Canter, a husky-voiced Nashville star returning — perhaps too soon — from rehab for a three-date testing-the-waters tour, Country Strong is at least less predictable than its trailer suggests.
The film's teaser gives you everything: the damaged heroine (Paltrow), the controlling Svengali husband (Tim McGraw), the pure-country conscience/love interest (Garrett Hedlund), the rival ingénue (Leighton Meester), the hardships along the way, the triumphant return concert.
But Country Strong is sometimes surprising. The true lead here isn't Paltrow but Hedlund as the young honky-tonk songwriter Beau Hutton, an updated Merle Haggard type. Hedlund is the most believable performer here and comes off well even in the frequent moments when the script goes off the rails. Moments after Beau is speechifying about pop-country — "Just because they put it on the radio doesn't mean it's worth a damn" — Country Strong contrives to have him cheering on the slickest and most fake musical number in the film.
The relationship between Paltrow's Kelly and Meester's rising starlet Chiles Stanton is both less central to the film and less combative than expected, and McGraw's husband/manager is less one-note manipulative than he might have been.
You actually get the sense that these characters and these actors could pull off a pretty good little music-biz movie, but writer-director Shana Feste has no idea what to do with them half the time.
Kelly's problems go deeper than substance abuse, but even with that knowledge, the film's final swerve isn't earned, and it's just the most prominent of many moments when the film has characters make decisions that don't make sense. Country Strong is also full of confusing logistical questions, ham-handed exposition via radio and television reports, and a truly groan-inducing bit of heavy-handed recurring symbolism involving a baby bird.
Perhaps worst of all given the setting is a clumsy musical sense. There's some decent stuff here, but the film doesn't have a strong critical ear. Kelly is supposed to be a true artist — a latter-day Loretta Lynn. But at the end, they have Chiles singing "A Little Bit Stronger," a good grown-up's song and current hit for recently divorced country star Sara Evans that would seem to fit the Kelly character perfectly. Moments later, Kelly takes the stage to shout out the somewhat similar but totally ersatz title anthem. The choices are mismatched and the move feels lost. Given that we aren't likely to see a lot of regionally filmed music movies hit wide distribution, Country Strong is a missed opportunity.