Country Strong Dir. Shana Feste

[Screen Gems; 2011]

Styles: melodrama
Others: Glitter, various Lifetime biopics

The DVDs that you dig out of the bottom of those giant crates in grocery stores can really be fascinating if you’re in the right frame of mind. I once found a $3 copy of Marlon Brando’s Western, One-Eyed Jacks, at a supermarkert in New Mexico and proceeded to fall in love with the movie. But that’s a rare occurrence, because the fact is most of the cheaply-made discs you find while rummaging have been cast into bargain bins for a reason: they’ve been all but forgotten by a world that, while often championing mediocrity, mercifully rejects movies when they’re at their worst.

Long before I sat down to watch it at a crowded preview screening, Country Strong reminded me of a movie that I’m going to casually overlook in a grocery store five years from now. Its poster and trailer advertise the kind of movie that, oblivious to its own banality, hits every well-worn note in the shrill-melodrama tradition and does it poorly, mistaking its own slogging pace and frequent narrative inconsistencies for elegant drama and surprising plot twists. Only movies that are so bad they don’t know it can be this indistinguishable from their own hype: Country Strong is every bit as by-the-numbers as its ads make it seem. While it may have been myopically aiming for Tender Mercies/Crazy Heart territory, it is the country music cousin of Glitter, minus the camp.

A Faith Hill-esque country star (Gwyneth Paltrow) with a history of substance abuse is being driven by her career-manager husband (Tim McGraw) to stage a comeback tour, but matters have been complicated. While in rehab, she began sleeping with a young stud orderly (Garrett Hedlund) who also happens to be a soulful country crooner. The star demands to have the stud open for her on the tour, but the husband has already planned to book an up-and-coming Southern belle (Leighton Meester) — referred to at one point as “the next Carrie Underwood” — and anyway feels threatened by the obvious sexual tension between the star and the stud. As well he should. The star, in turn, is threatened by the young belle, who occasionally makes eyes at the husband and also happens to be a close acquaintance of the stud. The star and her husband settle on booking them both, and the tour begins rolling, with the four-way romantic confusion in full heat. What follows is a drably lit soap opera in which the star regresses into booze, the belle intoxicates the husband and the stud, and American flags cascade movingly down the backs of stages on which country singers pour out their hearts. No line is too familiar to be spoken through glassy tears by an actor with a hollow stare, and no matter what unmotivated tragedies occur, the whole mess is brought to a bewilderingly pat conclusion.

Perhaps the best way to think of a movie like this is to consider that it knows its audience and is only giving them what they expect. In the sense that it’s true to the way it was advertised, Country Strong is earnest and honest. The fact that its characters have no emotion beyond what their archetypes dictate shouldn’t stop it from being perceived as heartfelt by its intended fans, the people who love the warmed-over triteness of the pop-country it shamelessly apes.

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