Make no mistake, Country Strong is not to be confused with last year’s twang-toned wonder Crazy Heart, and the differences can be roughly compared to the differences of art and attitude within country music itself. Strong, a melodrama about the dizzying travails of a rehab-reliant country star attempting to regain her throne and sanity, keeps leaning into the winds and sliding into the goop of prefab sentimentality and the Big Show. In comparison, Crazy Heart was a smaller, more intimate, and rawer-hearted saga of a leathered singer’s return to form.
That said, Country Strong has enough going for it, including a sturdy musical chassis and treats for country fans new and old, to make it well worth a look, especially as a fresh kind of vehicle for the movie-strong Gwyneth Paltrow. Here, Paltrow easily steals the show and our attentions, and tends to make her ensemble seem lesser by comparison. Real-life country star Tim McGraw pulls off the role of the drink-addled star’s husband/manager well enough, but probably shouldn’t give up his day job. (Ironically, everyone else in the cast sings except McGraw, the actual singer.)
As the younger up-and-comers on the periphery of the hopeful comeback story, Garrett Hedlund and Leighton Meester convey easy charisma and pleasing voices: Could Nashville be calling them? It all gets a bit fuzzy where the real twang ends and the reel twang begins.
But then there is Paltrow, towering over the rest, and the film itself, really. Oddly enough, her role as a teetering, post-traumatic idealist artist reminds us of another strong and emotionally vulnerable performance in her filmography; as the self-destructive poet Sylvia Plath in Sylvia. From Strong’s musical evidence, Paltrow could reasonably throw her cowgirl hat into the ring of singing, once we finally get to hear her cut loose in a climactic concert scene.
Even there, though, in the majesty of the onstage moment, the “tortured artist” demons are barking at her door. In the film’s soundtrack, bona fide current country star Sara Evans sings her anthem of renewal “A Little Bit Stronger,” but in narrative terms the “stronger” qualifier may not be enough to save the day. In this story, the underlying theme is that even rich cowgirls get the self-destructive blues.