Movie review: 'Country Strong'

Gwyneth Paltrow has the pipes, but her young co-star steals this movie out from under her Photo: Screen Gems

DENVER — The new drama “Country Strong” is supposed to be All About Gwyneth.

Not only does Gwyneth Paltrow have gams to die for, plus an Oscar on her mantle and a rock-star husband, she can belt out a tune better than any “American Idol” wannabe. And “Country Strong” exists, in part, to prove it.

Gwyneth Paltrow in "Country Strong"

Gwyneth Paltrow in “Country Strong”

Too bad she didn’t see Garrett Hedlund coming.

The young actor, currently starring in “Tron: Legacy,” steals “Country Strong” out from under the blond beauty. He’s got a rumbling, bruised baritone that could start any honky tonk joint a-jumping. He’s so natural that you’ll forgive the film’s awkward transitions, clunky metaphors and an ending that seems too melodramatic for even the hokiest country song.

Paltrow plays Kelly Canter, a country superstar recently released from rehab to mend her drinkin’ ways. James (Tim McGraw), her husband-slash-manager, arranges a quickie comeback tour. One dazed stage appearance later, and it’s clear she’s hardly ready to resume her career.

She’s one hot country mess.

Enter Beau (Hedlund), a hunky young country singer who “befriended” Kelly during her rehab stint. He represents pure country music, with none of the bells and whistles seen swirling around Shania Twain and her ilk.

Beau joins Kelly on tour to provide some fresh talent and an emotional crutch. He’s joined by another country ingenue, a former beauty pageant winner named Chiles Stanton (“Gossip Girl’s” Leighton Meester), who sings like an angel when she can battle past her stage fright.

Sparks fly, lovers swap partners and vodka bottles crash against trailer walls. Would you want a country music drama that lacked any of the above?

Paltrow is perfect, on paper, for the role of Kelly. But the screenplay forgets to include that country star charisma that cemented Kelly’s stardom in the first place. The movie lets Paltrow shine way too late, forcing viewers to accept her superstardom at face value. At times, the fictional Dewey Cox of “Walk Hard” fame has more music cred than Kelly.

It’s a critical mistake in a film teeming with minor, more forgivable ones – like why Beau would waste his time with a boozed up Kelly in the first place.

Writer/director Shana Feste juggles the soapy subplots with some dexterity, but the final reel can’t deliver the show-stopping moments the story demands. And shame on the entire production for using Kelly’s visit to a very sick child to steer the movie back on track.

“Country Strong” offers some wonderful music to make amends for the storytelling flaws, including a flirty duet between Beau and Chiles. Even those allergic to pedal steel guitars will sway in their seats, and both Hedlund and Meester prove to have voices as purty as their respective pusses.

But “Strong” lacks a superstar presence, one Paltrow was supposed to provide in spades.

Audiences will enter “Country Strong” bracing for a powerhouse performance by Paltrow. They’ll leave eager to see what else Hedlund can do on the big screen.

Christian Toto is a veteran journalist and film critic whose work appears in The Denver Post, The Washington Times and PajamasMedia.com. His movie reviews are heard on WTOP radio and “The Dennis Miller Show,” and he blogs on film at What Would Toto Watch?

This article is the copyrighted property of the writer and Communities @ WashingtonTimes.com. Written permission must be obtained before reprint in online or print media. REPRINTING TWTC CONTENT WITHOUT PERMISSION AND/OR PAYMENT IS THEFT AND PUNISHABLE BY LAW.

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Christian Toto

Christian Toto is a freelance entertainment reporter and film critic with more than a decade of experience in daily newspapers, magazines and the Web. He currently reports for The Washington Times, boxoffice.com, The Denver Post, Denver Magazine, MovieMaker Magazine, HumanEvents.com, PajamasMedia.com and Big Hollywood. His radio commentaries can be heard on WTOP in Washington, D.C. and 94.5 Country in Topeka, Kansas. He is the official film critic for “The Dennis Miller Show" heard nationwide on Westwood One stations. He regularly blogs about film at What Would Toto Watch? and the Denver Film Community Examiner site. He is a member of both the Washington, D.C. Area Film Critics Association and the Denver Film Critics Society. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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