Weak sauce 

Country Strong hits sour notes

The dog days of summer come early for movie lovers—so early that many may still be nursing New Year's Eve hangovers when studios begin dumping the worst of the worst films on unsuspecting and undeserving audiences. It's essentially the opposite of December, when we see a mix of big holiday films and small gems with Oscar dreams. It's not until the first of the year that we get 2010's leftover big-budget disasters and other promising-sounding projects with big stars that are just unsalvageable bad films. I'm guessing the logic here among industry executives is that critics have a short memory and will forget these movies when writing their "Worst of 2011" lists 350 days later.

This is all a long way of saying that when presented with a choice of films to review this week, the list consisted of Season of the Witch and Country Strong, two movies that currently have a combined Rotten Tomatoes score of 22 percent. Suffice it to say nothing was opening at the Wilma last weekend. Because I dislike country music far less than I now dislike any film starring Nicolas Cage, I chose Country Strong. I suppose I should thank my editor for even giving me a choice.

So let's not mince words. Country Strong is a really bad film. But more than that, Country Strong is a lazy bad film. It takes a tried-and-true formula that at the very least should result in a mediocre movie and somehow manages to make everything much worse. Given the plot (redemptive tale of a country singer), the sub-plots (two up-and-coming singer-songwriters as the opening acts) and the actors involved (the ever-capable Gwyneth Paltrow and country singer Tim McGraw), this was a softball. So how did the producers, director and especially the screenwriters all swing and miss so badly, ending up with a mindless, irritating melodramatic piece of crap?

click to enlarge Rocky road.
  • Rocky road.

It's not as if they didn't have a good recent model to work with. Crazy Heart, which came out way back in December 2009, took a minimalist approach to the same basic formula of down-and-out country star and ended up as a masterpiece that garnered Jeff Bridges his first Oscar. Go back and watch the last 10 minutes of it sometime. It is affecting on a level rarely reached in film these days.

I didn't expect Country Strong to be a masterpiece, and, perhaps, Crazy Heart set the bar too high. But the degree to which this movie fails is astounding to the point I felt bad for the actors involved. The film's atrociousness is not their fault. Even relative newcomers Leighton Meester ("Gossip Girl") and Garrett Hedlund (Tron: Legacy), who play the roles of up-and-coming 20-something singers, Chiles Stanton and Beau Hutton—while grating at times—are hardly the problem here.

The combination of mindless script and nonsensical plot development seems like an ambush on the actors. (Maybe I'm being too kind here). Paltrow is Kelly Canter, a country superstar whose self-destructive behavior lands her in rehab after falling off a stage during a concert in Dallas. We pick up the story as she's about to be released after a year-long stay, and her controlling husband James (McGraw) is eager to get her back on tour. Beau, the beautiful rising country star happens to be an orderly in the rehab center, where he can play his songs for Kelly. And sleep with her, apparently. Mind you, we're about five minutes into the movie at this point.

It gets plenty worse. Within a week or two Kelly is back on a mini-tour, with Dallas looming as the final tour stop, where—we are constantly reminded—she can redeem herself after last year's disaster. There's not a nuanced scene to enjoy here as Kelly quickly regresses back into a troubled diva. Beau continues to sleep with her until he realizes what a nut job she is, at which point he moves on to sleeping with the younger, prettier and less-nutty Chiles. I should note that before their affair ends, we do get the most preposterous montage in recent film history after Beau and Kelly somehow jump a train and travel the rails in a boxcar while holding onto ropes and staring longingly at each other.

Since some of you may still see this film, I won't ruin the ending. But I will say that if you are expecting this clichéd redemptive tale to end as most clichéd redemptive tales do, then you are in for a surprise. Just when you think Country Strong has maxed out on lazy melodrama, the writers take a cue from Spinal Tap and turn it all the way up to 11. I didn't see this one coming. Does that count as a compliment?

Save your time and money and go watch Crazy Heart again.

Country Strong continues at the Carmike 10.

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