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With: Gwyneth Paltrow, Garrett Hedlund, Leighton Meester, Tim McGraw, Marshall Chapman, Jeremy Childs, J.D. Parker, Cinda McCain
Written by: Shana Feste
Directed by: Shana Feste
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements involving alcohol abuse and some sexual content
Running Time: 117
Date: 11/08/2010

Country Strong (2011)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Giving In

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I'm not much of a country music fan, and I usually laugh at the numerous jokes about it; it's always about bars, trucks, hound dogs and broken hearts. But -- dadgum it -- those things work again and again because they're clich├ęs, and they're based in truth. The same goes for Country Strong, a fairly turgid new drama that is anything but subtle, anything but surprising, but somehow it's truthful and honest, and the characters get under your skin.

Gwyneth Paltrow stars -- and does her own singing -- as a country music superstar Kelly Canter, who begins the movie in rehab. While pregnant and on tour in Dallas, she got roaring drunk and fell off the stage, killing her unborn child. While checked in, she meets Beau Hutton (Garrett Hedlund), who works there as kind of a glorified janitor, while singing and playing country music in dive bars by night. Kelly's manager/husband James (singer Tim McGraw, who doesn't sing a note here) comes to pick her up early and begins planning her comeback tour. Kelly asks to have Beau come along as a warm-up act, but James wants the prettier, flashier Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester). Thanks to a twist of fate and a bit of kindness on Beau's part, they end up going together. (Hedlund and Meester also do their own singing.)

On the road, all kinds of dramas arise. Characters fall in love and out of love with one another, and Kelly tries not to drink anymore, but of course falls off the wagon. In-between, we get some terrific sounding music, played with real joy and affection. One scene that should have sent sane viewers screaming for the exits involves Kelly participating in a "Make-a-Wish Foundation" event, visiting a poor kid with leukemia. But somehow, some way, writer/director Shana Feste turns this potentially maudlin scene into something genuinely sweet. Likewise with Kelly's big comeback performance: we're supposed to believe that she has hit it out of the park, and we absolutely believe it. Paltrow throws her entire heart, soul and body into it, and it's a spectacular show.

Feste really understands her characters, and how they interact. At first James comes across like a typical third wheel, a jerk who is only around to get in the way of the real, honest-to-goodness lovers. But then the movie begins turning. James isn't so bad. And Chiles isn't really so vapid. And maybe things aren't going to turn out quite like they originally seemed. Or maybe they actually will, which is how they were really supposed to turn out all along. One thing is for sure: Country Strong has a true-blue country ending.

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