Any adult drama that needs to use small children or adorable animals to elicit sympathy should be immediately regarded with suspicion, since there are few cheaper ways to get audiences aww-ing and heartstrings twanging. It’s a bad sign, then, that a wounded baby bird pops up within the first ten minutes of Country Strong. It’s a worse sign when a terminally ill child appears about two thirds of the way through the film. It’s a much worse sign when the former symbolizes the main character and the latter is used in a key emotional turning point of the film.
But then Country Strong has no shortage of corny, artificial strategies to squeeze emotion out of audiences. Strong tells the story of a country music superstar trying to recover her career after an vodka-fueled career meltdown, a story that, according to writer/director Shana Feste, was inspired by the travails of Britney Spears. This raises the question of how much Feste really cares about the country music backdrop. The answer – “not a whole lot” – is evident in the fact that Gwyneth Paltrow plays the troubled singer, a feat of egregious miscasting paralleled only by the miscasting of Gossip Girl Leighton Meester here as a younger singer.
Meester, at least, isn’t asked to do more than maintain a cherubic smile and an aura of innocence in her Taylor-Swiftian role as the comeback-tour opener who inspires the jealousy of Paltrow’s star. Paltrow, on the other hand, is meant to inhabit a woman going through a rollercoaster recovery from alcoholism, but her performance here suggests a woman less addicted to vodka than she is to Ambien. A woman going through the series of breakdowns that the script lays out for Paltrow’s character should have to display some degree of emotional rawness and physical degradation, but even the way that Paltrow’s mascara smudges seems timid and mannered, and there’s a zombified limpness to her attempts to access any kind of strong emotion.
The bland lead and the cliché-ridden plot make this a mediocre movie, but what really launches this film into a new realm of terribleness is its ridiculous self-righteousness. Romantic lead #3 (Garrett Hedlund) plays another singer who, with his paint-chipped truck and carefully scraggly beard, bleeds real country music authenticity, and makes a point of letting anyone in the general vicinity know that as he brashly denounces the kind of country music that gets on the radio (“These aren’t songs! They’re Disneyland rides!”) and the “Country Barbies” that dominate the industry. What the radio-hating Mr. Authenticity isn’t aware of is that his songs, and the rest of the film’s music, were composed by the songwriters behind country music radio staples like Carrie Underwood, Tim McGraw (here as romantic lead #4, Paltrow’s ruthless manager/husband), and Taylor Swift.
Ms. Feste can have her characters name-drop Merle Haggard and Loretta Lynn as much she likes, but it doesn’t change the fact that phoniness is as central to Country Strong as lovesickness was to a Hank Williams song – it’s in the performances, in the music, and especially in that goddamned baby bird.