It’s hard to remember a film that rises to the level of emotional and dramatic incoherence of Shana Feste’s “Country Strong.”
You watch a movie like this and wonder: Didn’t anyone actually read this script before they started shooting? (Yes, apparently: In the press notes, producer Jenno Topping claims that she “sobbed” after reading the script. Apparently that wasn’t a tipoff.)
Here’s a theory: Perhaps this was an avant-garde experiment in which the actors simply read the lines off a teleprompter as each scene was filmed. And they shot it all in reverse order, so no one could really focus on where they were in the story. Otherwise, you just have to assume that these people are just plain dumb.
It’s a fascinatingly ridiculous film, one that seems to have little or no connection to the actual world – either the real world in which human beings interact, or the country-western-music world, where it supposedly is set. And yet it has actual stars in it: Gwyneth Paltrow, who still has an Oscar, and Leighton Meester, who undoubtedly never will. Just to mess with your mind, Tim McGraw, who actually is a denizen of the modern Nashville, shows up in a nonsinging role.
It’s hard to know what to make of Feste, who wrote and directed the underseen and emotionally powerful “The Greatest.” She served in a similar capacity here. But everything about it – from the clumsy writing to the inept framing of images to the ham-handed editing – seems to be the work of someone else. Or perhaps her evil twin.
Garrett Hedlund, last seen doing digital battle in “Tron: Legacy,” seems to be the focus of the story, though Feste can’t make up her mind just whose film this is. He plays Beau, a would-be country singer who regularly plays the Nashville bars and makes ends meet as an orderly at a local (and exceptionally glitzy) rehab center.
There, he’s befriended Kelly Canter (Paltrow), a country star who’s finishing a stint to overcome the alcoholism that nearly derailed her career. But her husband and manager is James Canter (McGraw), whose name is spoken with such reverence that he’s obviously the modern-day equivalent of Col. Tom Parker – or, perhaps, Dick Cheney.
James shows up at the glitzy rehab facility in the midst of a warm scene between Beau and Kelly, to announce that he’s got a doctor ready to spring her from rehab (a month early!) so she can go back out on the road to prove she’s cured from all that messiness that landed her in drydock. (She apparently was so drunk that she fell off a stage in Dallas, causing a miscarriage that ended her five-month pregnancy).
There are several things that are hinky in this scene. For starters, Beau is playing his guitar with Kelly, who is happily helping him write a song. But Kelly’s husband doesn’t blink when Kelly identifies Beau (who is dressed in an orderly’s whites) as “my sponsor.”
Then James forces the wife who is his meal ticket – and who apparently has a serious drinking problem – to get back on the performing stage. And he tells her he’s going to put an inexperienced beauty queen, Chiles Stanton (Meester), out there as her opening act. But Kelly insists that Beau be the opener, though he too is an unknown.
So James, who apparently pays so little attention to his wife’s day-to-day life that he can’t tell an orderly from an AA sponsor, tells Beau he’ll take him along if he can keep Kelly from drinking. The rest of the movie is about the tour, which is one disaster after another, leading up to a climactic return performance in Dallas – will she redeem herself?
To her credit, Feste avoids a variety of obvious plotlines: There’s really no serious “All About Eve” competition between Kelly and Chiles, either professionally or personally (Chiles doesn’t sleep with James, who appears to be either asexual or uninterested in women). Kelly and Beau have one kiss and ride a freight train on a day off – but they too remain chaste. Nor does Feste turn Beau into a climber who sacrifices Kelly’s well-being for his own career.
On the other hand, she really doesn’t do much of anything else either. The movie is a string of events, as opposed to a plot.
Meanwhile, the big-time country-pop milieu she features is markedly short on energy. If you’re a fan of the music – or even if you’ve only seen commercials for one of the TV specials by singers like Kenny Chesney or Garth Brooks – you know that most contemporary country is really watered-down rock’n’roll – soft rock with an uptempo beat, a steel guitar and cowboy hats. But no one in this movie sings a song that could be described as foot-stompin’ until almost the end of the film.
What music there is is mostly unmemorable, with the exception of a few of the songs that Hedlund and Meester sing. Each of them has a solid voice – Hedlund’s soulful baritone would not be out of place on the country-pop charts.
But otherwise “Country Strong” is less strong than merely long. It stumbles from scene to scene, theme to theme and trope to trope. If you want it to make sense, however, you’re out of luck.