[There probably are some spoilers in this review. That is the warning.]When I think of Leighton Meester, I don't have to think of The Roommate (2011). Same goes for Garret Hedlund and Tron: Legacy (2010). Or Gwyneth Paltrow and Contagion (2011), though to be fair when I think Gwyneth Paltrow I think of Shakespeare in Love (1998) or Hard Eight (1996). That's because I can think of them as country singers of varying levels of success and ambition in Shana Feste's Country Strong (2010). But that doesn't mean that Feste made a masterpiece.
Country Strong is an incredibly dark and often cold tale of the incompatibility of love and fame, of how success can be measured by others or oneself, and how even the caring individuals can hurt others because of love. It is not interested in giving any of the characters pure motivations. Nor are there any easy steps to make things better because the characters all find themselves in dicey relations from the beginning. And because it isn't easy to choose the route that is contrary to success (which should bring a level of happiness), the character are often blind to their own hypocrisy.
Other than whatever was living on Tim McGraw's head, the cast is strong. Paltrow can sing, and she gets a better showcase for that talent than she did in Duets (2000). She also can convey every bit of the roller coaster her character must endure. Hedlund affects the ultimate cowboy walk – it really is awesome – and a shoulder slouch when he plays that conveys a playfulness that fits his vocal style. He can sing a bit, too; something like a cross between Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard. Meester, who looks prettier as the film goes on and the personality of Chiles Stanton comes through, can sing as well (and not that crap like her single, "Your Love is a Drug").
The story is somewhat complex, but does blend together well. (Here are the spoilers.) Country music superstar Kelly Canter (Paltrow) begins the film in rehab, attempting to recover from an alcohol induced incident that caused a deep rift between her and her husband, James (McGraw). Sneaking into her room for songwriting tips and sex is maverick musician Beau Hutton (Hedlund). Beau warns against taking Kelly out on tour – one that is needed to save her career – but James wins out. James wants young beauty Chiles Stanton to open for Kelly (and he may or may not be sleeping with her), but ends up bringing Beau along as well. Kelly has a few meltdowns, has ready access to Vodka in her dressing room, and is generally hurtful to the people around her. Likewise, Beau does what he can to ensure that both women want him. James tries to keep things together for the comeback tour but ignores the emotional needs of everyone. Kelly pulls it together long enough to give a great performance and try to help Chiles avoid some of the common mistakes a starlet may make on the way up, but that ends up making the contrast between success and happiness even more tragic in the end.
I would wager that if one was not a fan of country music there wouldn't be much motivation to see this movie. And for some reason, the music isn't given the showcase it deserves. Still, there is a good story in this film, and people who like darker romances with some level of realism will likely enjoy it. I thought it was okay, but I am a pretty harsh critic.