Thursday, January 6, 2011

ADVANCE MOVIE REVIEW: Country Strong

COUNTRY STRONG-- 3 STARS

Internet Movie Database

Everybody loves a comeback story. The further the fall and the bigger the return, the better. The comeback stories of our supposed "hero" celebrities and athletes always attract interest. The biggest culprits are drugs, alcohol, and adultery (sometimes all three). Take the likes of Drew Barrymore, Johnny Cash, Robert Downey, Jr., and Mickey Rourke. The sports comebacks are just as memorable and beloved. Just ask comeback kids Lance Armstrong, Kobe Bryant, Brett Favre (who might need another one lately), and the age-defying George Foreman. We're watching one in making right now with former dog-fighting quarterback Michael Vick. In both genres, there are too many to list.

The general public remembers the good times, are very forgiving, and long to see them return to form. Is a triumphant return waiting out there for the likes of Tiger Woods, the baseball players of the steroid era, Mel Gibson, or even Lindsay Lohan? Heck, if a homeless radio announcer can get a makeover and job in 24 hours, why can't they? (see: Yahoo clip)

While real-life comeback stories sell magazines, capture our hearts, and make great novels and movies (Walk the Line, Ray, etc.), the fictional ones can be just as effective and compelling. The benchmark example is the original 1977 Rocky and its 2006 bookend finale Rocky Balboa. If you skipped Rocky II, III, IV, and V and just watched those two, you'd be set with a great story that really amplifies the classic underdog and comeback elements.

The new film Country Strong hopes to continue that tradition by stealing a few pages from real-life comeback stories and making its own. Add one part Britney Spears (of which the movie was actually inspired by, in fact), one part Mindy McCready, and a few dashes of Johnny Cash and Tina Turner and you've got country star Kelly Canter, played by Academy Award winner Gwyneth Paltrow. Just over six months ago, Kelly was arrested and sent to rehab (not her first trip there) after drunk and disorderly conduct at a Dallas bar while 5 1/2 months pregnant. Not only did she lose the baby, but also her star career and the accepting love of her husband and manager James Canter (country star and ever-improving actor Tim McGraw).

In rehab, she befriends Beau Hutton (the up-and-coming Garrett Hedlund of Tron: Legacy), a rusty pickup-driving local Nashville singer-songwriter who just likes playing music for good honest folks at bars instead of the attention of the big stage. Beau is the classic "tough guy" who's all teddy bear inside if you can get under his shell. He plays the part of Kelly's rehab "sponsor" and an outlet away from James. When James pulls Kelly from rehab early to resurrect her failing career and Q-rating, she insists that Beau come to open for her on the return tour.

After Beau reluctantly agrees, partly to keep an eye on Kelly, they are joined by James's latest business discovery, former beauty queen Chiles Stanton (Gossip Girl's Leighton Meester), who is looking for her big break towards stardom. She idolizes Kelly and bubbles with naivety, enthusiasm, and talent, but is raw on stage. While James is pushing Kelly back to performing and resurrecting her image, he's putting an awful lot of attention into Chiles, maybe too much.

Soon enough, it's Beau that becomes the glue that holds everyone together. He's a confidant to Kelly and can reach her better than her husband can since their past history and loss. His fearless performing helps and inspires Chiles to new levels of confidence. Geometry and sweet music like that make for one toe-tapping love triangle with careers at stake in three directions.

Country Strong, the second feature from writer-director Shana Feste after 2009's independent film The Greatest, interweaves these four characters with very different goals together quite well. Each of their fears, challenges, loves, losses, and motivations become intriguing to watch. On paper, you would think Country Strong would become catty with veteran Kelly trying to outshine the younger competition in Chiles, nipping at her heels, or a manly arm-wrestling match and pissing contest between James and Beau for Kelly's affection, but it doesn't do that. These four characters become connected and need each other to build themselves up, not put the others around them down. The lead performances of the four actors match that.

Gwyneth Paltrow has the depth and talent as an actress to equally portray the unraveling and composed sides of a celebrity. From a dynamite and charming scene serenading a "Make a Wish" child to her alcoholic relapse lows, Paltrow never comes across as fake with her performance. She's worth the price of admission and a true star.  You would think Leighton Meester would be stuck with the "Taylor Swift-wannabe" part, but even she brings out different sides to her character that you wouldn't expect.

Ever since his stunning acting debut in Friday Night Lights (coincidentally playing Garrett Hedlund's father) on up to The Blindside from last year, Tim McGraw continues to become a more complete actor. Sure, it's a movie about country music, but he doesn't get the singing part. He has to, in essence, play "the suit" and the "bad guy," yet makes it uniquely work. Lastly, Hedlund really raises his game as Beau. It may come across as inconsistent at times, but his charismatic charm can overcome the unnatural scenes playing the gruff jerk trying to look tough. You would never know this is same guy from Tron: Legacy three weeks ago or even Four Brothers, Troy, and Friday Night Lights previously. In a big way, Country Strong becomes more about his journey than that of Kelly Canter's.

Another compelling dimension to Country Strong is that all of the actors did their own singing. Gwyneth has done some movie singing before with the small karaoke film Duets from 2000, but this is a lot bigger than that and she nails this part of the performance too. It must help to be married to the lead singer of Coldplay. While anyone could sing Meester's "Country Barbie" part, it's Garrett Hedlund (again) that surprises the most with his low, smokey-bar drawl for emotional ballads coupled with a big ten-gallon hat smile. Yes, ladies, he's single and waiting for marriage.

Make no mistake. Country Strong is a drama right there with it's real-life comparisons of Ray and Walk the Line. While the energy of the music and young love drives a lot of the story, those expecting to stand up and cheer all movie might be disappointed. It is nowhere near as true and as deep as those two award-winning music biographies, or as maddening and intense as the current awards season contender Black Swan, but the challenges of addiction are not tucked under the carpet in Country Strong. However, it's a story worth telling and worth watching.

LESSON #1: THE IMPORTANCE AND PURPOSE OF REHAB FOR RECOVERY-- Sure, we may roll our eyes at the tabloid cover stories of millionaires going to rehab for seemingly benign or contrived problems, but addiction is real and rehab has a purpose.  You may not want to believe it, but those people have problems too.  Yes, the story of Kelly Canter is fictional, but not starting the proper medical rehab to begin with or completing what it takes to kick the habit can have dire consequences.  There is no fast cure or express lane.  Every case is different.  Recovery takes time and commitment for, not just the individual, but their loved ones around them in support.

LESSON #2: LOVE AND FAME CANNOT LIVE IN THE SAME PLACE-- This is a line from the movie, but it works.  You hear about stories, from time to time, of people who gave everything they had throughout their lives for fame and fortune.  Along the way, that selfishness cost them their youth, their family members, and their meaningful relationships, leaving them alone and empty.  That can get multiplied when your spouse is out for different goals next to you in that fame and fortune.  The business/married relationship of Kelly and James is greatly tested in this way, whereas Beau's goals of avoiding fame and sticking with entertaining regular people supports this idea.

LESSON #3: DON'T BE AFRAID TO FALL IN LOVE, BECAUSE IT'S THE ONLY THING THAT MATTERS-- Piggy-backing off of a movie line in the second lesson leads to another movie line that then becomes this lesson.  All of that fame and fortune is great, but, in the end, love is the only thing that matters.  It seems like every movie character in every movie has commitment issues with love on some level.  Here, in Country Strong, that love can be giving of yourself, a slow dance, the creative act of songwriting, a ballad sung to strangers, or a kindred spirit to slow things down with when the drive for fame and fortune overwhelm you.