Country-music purists speak longingly for the golden age of honest-talkin' honky-tonk, when giants like Merle and Waylon dominated the charts. Shana Feste's backstage drama of a Shania Twain--esque superstar (Paltrow) falling apart at the seams clearly has an affinity for C&W glory days; the closest thing it has to a saint is a studly singer-songwriter (Tron: Legacy's Hedlund) who worships the morning-after melancholy of '70s outlaw troubadours. ("They're saying you're the next Townes Van Zandt!" squeals one character. Let's not lose our heads here, people.) But for all the lip service paid to country's elder mavericks and the plethora of pill-popping, booze-swilling and bad behavior on display, Feste's ode to showbiz clichs is closer to contemporary Nashville pop: twangy enough to qualify as Southern-fried, but too slick and disposable to be truly deep.
Which you can't blame Paltrow for, considering she's the film's single saving grace. Saddled with a postrehab comeback story line that's more Valley of the Dolls than Crazy Heart (yet without the benefit of the former's camp-hysteric pleasures), she finds sublime emotional gold mines in even the most manipulative moments. No actor should have to play scenes involving a tragi-adorable terminally ill child; few movie stars could emerge with dignity and still sell the sequence's climactic clinch with an estranged manager-husband (McGraw) so beautifully. Whenever Country Strong morphs into How Gwyneth Got Her Groove Back, the film channels what passes in modern Hollywood melodramas for a soul. Once the peripherals start pushing aside her performance---the neo-Kristofferson making cute with a "country Barbie" protg (Meester), McGraw doing the industry-sleaze mambo---the movie isn't worth the scuffed cowgirl boots it's scooting around in. (Now playing.)
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