*Country Strong (PG-13)
Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Tinseltown
Look — it's the movie about the lady country music superstar! Gwyneth Paltrow as Faith Trisha LeAnn Shania. Hey, cute: She meets the boytoy up-and-comer in rehab. Aww, adorable: An orphaned baby bird tucked into the movie that's all like metaphorical and stuff for how fragile and delicate a lady country music superstar on the downslide is. Sniff.
But danged if I didn't come way the hell around by the end of Country Strong ... though I'm not sure I can ever forgive it its title. Or the baby-bird thing, which is literally carried way too far to not be laughable.
Look, writer-director Shana Feste set herself an uphill climb here, but she scales it effortlessly, too. There's solid workmanship and an authentic emotional muscle in this movie. I was startled to find myself overwhelmed, eventually, by its ragged charms and its rough-edged vision of female power and pain.
For all that it might seem that we've seen this same story before — the rags-to-riches arc of the artist — we've never seen it done quite this way. Intimate rather than epic, suffused with bitter irony and unsentimentally bald-faced about the wages of fame.
In fact, this isn't even a rags-to-riches story. It's riches to ruin. Kelly Canter (Paltrow) is already huge as Country Strong opens, and already struggling to maintain her career and her self. And things aren't looking to get better when her husband and manager, James (Tim McGraw), checks her out of rehab early. She's still as fragile as, well, that baby bird she found on the grounds of her fancy-schmancy residential clinic that she's been nursing back to health.
She found something else in rehab: hunky, sensitive singer-songwriter Beau Hutton (Garrett Hedlund, so blandly forgettable in TRON: Legacy, and so riveting here). James is ready to send Kelly immediately onto a mini comeback tour and wants beauty-queen-turned-singer Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester) to open for her. Kelly wants Beau. They both get their way, and so commences a sort of love rectangle among the four of them, as age and experience contend with youth and innocence in bed and out. Will Beau and Chiles avoid the pitfalls of celebrity? Will Kelly and James patch up their troubled marriage? Will Kelly be able to pull off a single performance, or will she revert to whatever it was that landed her in rehab?
Feste, who gave us the lovely drama The Greatest last year, never lets Kelly or her plight descend into the sordid, and she does let a biting, dry wit underscore it. This is a world, as Feste's acid observations depict it, in which "emergency press conferences" and Make-a-Wish appearances can redeem tarnished fame, but also one in which the fame is not undeserved.
It was in fact a scene late in the film in which Kelly shows up in a classroom as a treat for a dying boy that won me over. Neither Feste nor Paltrow — who displays an authoritative maturity here as an actor and sings, too! — had gone out of their way to make Kelly overly ingratiating. To suddenly discover how much I liked her was a pleasant revelation.