Tuesday, January 25, 2011

“Country Strong” – Song, strong; to-may-to, to-mah-to.

Country Strong is a perfect example of a film that defines its audience before it ever hits the theaters. If you are not a fan of country music, you aren’t even going to consider seeing this film. For those that are fans, you probably weren’t too happy after seeing this film. I’m not sure why studios put out niche films like this, but if they’re happy with a one million dollar profit (on a budget of $15 million), I guess I can’t blame them. What I can blame them for is making a film that is essentially a two-hour long music video.

Gwyneth Paltrow is Kelly Cantor, a country superstar coming back from a stint in rehab. Her husband/manager, James (Tim McGraw), pulls her out of rehab early because he’s booked a comeback tour to jump start her career. As a side project, James is nurturing the singing career of a young former beauty queen, Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester). As a bonus cliché, Kelly insists that they also bring along her secret lover/public rehab sponsor, Beau Hutton (Garrett Hedlund), to launch his career as well. The rest of the film uses a series of songs to punctuate emotions and transition between scenes, hoping to disguise the one-dimensional characters and flat, depressing story.

To make sure you don’t accidentally like any of the characters, the film opens with a scene of Kelly and Beau playing a guitar and working out song lyrics. Kelly’s attire cannot be mistaken for anything other than “I just had movie affair sex” – when James walks in to take her home. To our surprise, James doesn’t crush Beau’s testicles, instead he seems to acknowledge the affair and grumpily asks Beau to take Kelly’s luggage to the car. Only five minutes into the film, we already dislike two, if not three, of the main characters. Luckily, a song plays to let us know that everything is really okay.

Our fourth main character, Chiles, appears to us at a bar concert where she is supposed to be tuning up for her upcoming tour with Kelly. She and Beau trade barbs like two school children pulling each other’s hair, and she brushes him off with clichéd beauty queen attitude and promptly vindicates Beau’s insults by freezing up on stage. In one of his few moments of decency, he jumps on stage with her and they sing “I’ve Got Friends in Low Places” together. We’re inclined to dislike the untalented beauty queen, but we’re utterly confused as to how we should feel about Beau. I guess we’re rooting for Beau, but the affair makes us hold back. Fortunately, we’re distracted by another song and the film moves on before we can think too hard.

The film continues on this way with all of the characters, each of them trying to do something nice and following it with something shitty (or vice versa):
1. Beau cares for Kelly and appears to be her moral compass… except he’s screwing her in the shower and whooping it up on trains with her.
2. James is the best villain candidate, pushing Kelly to perform and ignoring the fact she is having an affair…then lovingly dancing with her in a school room surrounded by happy children.
3. We want Kelly to succeed and resurrect her career…until she starts slamming vodka and nailing tour promoters in between crying for James to save her.
4. We don’t really want to root for Chiles, since she has an absurd name and is Kelly’s competition and possible replacement… except she’s the only character who’s not dicking someone else over (note: a sexual relationship between Chiles and James is only thinly implied; no evidence is ever given).

All that’s left for us to…yay, another song.

Without any characters to sympathize with, or a decent story to follow, I wonder if the screenwriters were even trying. Example: during Kelly’s first concert back, she receives a package with a bloody baby doll and a note calling her a “baby killer.” We learn that her stint in rehab was precipitated by a drunken fall at a concert, causing the death of her unborn child. She promptly gets drunk and breaks down in tears on stage. While I can accept that someone out there is cruel enough to send a package like that, I can’t accept a bottle of vodka present in the dressing room of someone who just got out of rehab. Not only was this lazy writing, but they blew a chance to get the audience on her side. Another example is – ooh, I like this song.

Overall, the film isn’t bad, but just very average. We’re left unsatisfied. None of the characters overcome their problems or give us any real reason to identify with them. Certainly none of them are “country strong.” It’s simply another story about a celebrity destroying her career, of which we are all too familiar in real life. The one positive thing is that the actors sang all of their songs and sounded good doing it. And I’m not just saying that because I like country music or that I still have the soundtrack coursing through my brain. I just wanted to let you know that…”I’m country strooooooong!”

Rating: Ask for six dollars back so you can download some of the songs from the soundtrack. That is, unless you hate country music.

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