Much of the talk prior to Country Strong’s release concerned Gwyneth Paltrow’s singing, and whether she’d be convincing playing an established Nashville star. Test passed: When drawing from her character’s repertoire of fictional country hits, Paltrow proves credible. She has stage presence and a pleasing voice capable of finding hidden reserves of power. In fact, the many performance scenes in Country Strong—the sophomore effort from The Greatest writer-director Shana Feste—are easily the best moments of the movie, both for the pleasant (though overpolished) material and the way Feste captures the heightened reality of performing before a massive crowd, when audience expectations and JumboTron screens can blow delicate emotions up to monstrous proportions. The problem is everything else.
First seen leaving a treatment facility well before rehab has had time to do its work, Paltrow plays a woman as fragile as she is talented. How fragile? As fragile as the possibly symbolic baby bird she nursed back to health after finding it alone in the woods. But husband/manager Tim McGraw seems more concerned about her career than her health, having callously booked her on a three-city comeback tour, including a stop in Dallas, the site of a drunken onstage meltdown that ended with a miscarriage-inducing fall. Along for the ride: Garrett Hedlund, a singer-songwriter/rehab attendant, to whom Paltrow’s taken a shine for his musical talent as well as his romantic attentions. Also: Leighton Meester, a beauty-queen-turned-singer whom McGraw thinks might be the next big thing, and who appears to have All About Eve-like designs on Paltrow’s career and marriage.
The film has all the makings of a classic overheated showbiz melodrama, even without that baby bird, but it never commits to the form. In fact, it never commits to much of anything. Characters’ motivations, even their personalities, shift from scene to scene. Is McGraw a pitiless slave driver pushing his wife to another breakdown, or a loving husband trying to keep their marriage together? A succession of black-on-black clothing choices suggests one answer, but neither the film nor the character seems to know. (And McGraw does keep expressing concern for that baby bird’s well-being.) But nobody’s performance is as puzzling as Paltrow’s: She throws herself into the songs, but not the singer. Though Feste gives her several juicy Ronee Blakley-in-Nashville-style breakdowns, Paltrow always appears to be holding back from the edge. She gives the movie as little vulnerability as she can, and somehow finds a way to appear vain while playing someone bottoming out. When she’s singing, she can pass for someone who’s been listening to Tammy Wynette since the cradle; when the music stops, she looks like a tourist.