Country Strong is a song you've heard before, but played with feeling 

Honky-Tonk Masquerade

Honky-Tonk Masquerade

Considering the lousy music-biz melodrama it could have been, rather than the uneven, intermittently affecting music-biz melodrama it turned out to be, it's easier to praise Country Strong for what it isn't than what it is. It isn't, as much of the pre-release hype suggested, a honky-tonk spin on All About Eve, with the characters filling prefab stereotypes of washed-up star and conniving wannabe; it isn't a condescending grab for soundtrack cash or a generic made-for-cable slot-filler with the part of Nashville played by Vancouver or Albuquerque.

And yet it's hard to separate what's fresh and engaging about this familiar story from the ways it never quite capitalizes on those elements — that the characters manage to surprise us only up to a point, that the smartly observed country-music milieu and location grit do little more than put a matte finish on a movie that's mostly glossy surface. Admittedly, that surface is good-looking indeed. The movie was shot by John Bailey, a cinematographer who's skilled at wringing character out of locations, whether it's the vampiric gleam of American Gigolo's L.A. or the fever-dream decadence of Cat People's New Orleans. It's an undeniable thrill to see Lower Broadway's neon rainbow through his lenses — even if, in the same establishing shot, the hero snags one of those magic movies-only parking spaces right outside a saloon door in the city's most congested tourist district.

That moment is Country Strong in a nutshell — a celluloid arm-wrestle between careful observation and contrivance. The writer-director, Shana Feste, has a gift for intimate two-character scenes that meander in intriguing directions — starting with the opening vignette between Beau Hutton (Garrett Hedlund), a honky-tonk hopeful day-gigging in a Middle Tennessee rehab clinic, and Kelly Canter (Gwyneth Paltrow), a fragile superstar recovering from a boozy breakdown. Their clandestine writing session is interrupted by Kelly's husband/manager James (Tim McGraw, the only one of the leads who doesn't sing), who sees enough of Beau's bedside manner to get his dander up.

But he needs Kelly back on the road badly enough that he talks Beau into joining the tour as an opener. While James chokes down his pride to cut a deal with his wife's suspected lover — something his clenched demeanor suggests has happened before — Beau seethes at sharing the stage with James' "Country Barbie" protégé Chiles Stanton, an ex-beauty queen who touts her role models as Kelly and Jesus Christ (in that order). But no sooner has Kelly exacted a promise from Beau not to sleep with anyone else on the tour, than he and Chiles start itching to do a little after-hours co-writing of their own.

Though the high-strung Kelly is the flashier part — a turn that allows Paltrow a full-on streaked-mascara diva trip — it's the handling of Chiles that typifies Feste's writing and direction at her best. It would have been easier (and perhaps more exciting dramatically) to make this porcelain doll a one-dimensional schemer: Kelly's Black Swan. Instead, as played in a surprisingly nuanced performance by Gossip Girl vixen Leighton Meester, she's funny and sympathetic — a self-doubting semi-airhead who secretly remedies her low IQ with flash cards — and she isn't punished for her ambition. Meester's especially good with Hedlund, whose screen presence here only shows how shamefully Tron: Legacy squandered his charisma: He's even got a honey-dripping baritone pitched somewhere between John Doe and Don Williams.

In fact, the country soundtrack is unusually credible, handled by ace music supervisor Randall Poster in tandem with an all-star roster of Music Row producers, tunesmiths and session players: Where Nashville never forgave Robert Altman for letting all those L.A. carpetbaggers write their own show tunes, this score comes with pretty much a citywide stamp of approval. And yet authenticity, in this case, doesn't translate into drama or narrative impact. Say what you will about Nashville's songs, they advanced the plot and the characters in complex, illuminating ways. Kelly's songs may sound more accurate, particularly as Paltrow socks them across in the big concert finale, but the movie doesn't put them in any kind of context that would make them meaningful. We never see why one song means anything more to her than another, or why they mean anything to her audience.

That's one reason the Kelly-James plot comes off as less involving than the Beau-Chiles subplot. The former hits all the expected marks, from romantic disinterest to alcoholic fury, while the latter keeps striking unexpected notes. There's nothing the movie has to say about love vs. fame that Loretta Lynn didn't put with harder-headed clarity in "Success" (and without stooping to the use of a symbolic quail chick). And while Feste aims admirably for an in-medias-res narrative scheme that has us playing catch-up to what the people onscreen already know — mainly, the particulars of why the Dallas tour date looms as a dark day — she skimps on the immersive character detail that raised last year's Crazy Heart above its shopworn parts. (Blame, in part, the relatively featureless trappings of Kelly's success: This is the country circuit of Marriotts and downtown arenas, not fleabag motels and bowling alleys.) For a movie that spends so much time with so few major characters, you learn precious little about them.

Even when the material at screen center is thin, however, the margins hold your attention. I don't think Marshall Chapman has an audible line in the entire movie as Kelly's omnipresent handler, but she confers a silent authority wherever she goes: She saunters through the movie's backstage areas as if she were born with a lanyard. Likewise, every time crackerjack Nashville sideman Chris Scruggs' bespectacled moon face appears in Beau's backing band, the movie gets a shot of instant cred. The persuasive incidental casting proves not only that the filmmakers understand and respect the milieu, but that they discerned something about the makeup of the city's club scene, its touring acts and its studio hive.

Elsewhere, local stage actor Jeremy Childs has a pungent small role as a sleazeball promoter — with whom McGraw (who has a way of making his clothes look either too big or too small) deftly underplays how to conduct a business transaction with the son-of-a-bitch who's banging your wife. Indeed, if nothing else, the movie makes a portfolio piece for Nashville's actors, crew base and locations. In Country Strong, they're enough to offset a lot of weaknesses.


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