Session musicians in Nashville often use numeric shorthand instead of sheet music, because they work at a blisteringly fast pace, and because the songs they record aren't necessarily that musically adventurous. A whole song can be scrawled on the back of a napkin; in many cases, all the musicians have to decipher is the key that the song will be performed in, and the numbers one through seven.
Country Strong, the latest in a long line of films set against the backdrop of turquoise and twang, isn't even as sophisticated as this Nashville numbering system. Its simple verse-chorus-verse construction blandly weaves music, infidelity and addiction in ways we've seen plenty of times before. There are a few high points, but on the whole, it's a pretty forgettable bit of melodrama. While even a very average country song usually has the decency to wrap up in three minutes, this thing just keeps bleating on and on.
Superstar Kelly Canter—think Carrie Underwood with a few more miles on her—fell off a stage in Dallas, and as a result of her drunken accident, terminated her pregnancy. Now months later, Kelly (Gwyneth Paltrow) is well enough to be released from rehab. That's the verdict of her husband and manager (Tim McGraw), who is anxious to get Kelly back in the spotlight and back onstage.
While in rehab, Kelly meets an aspiring singer-songwriter named Beau Hutton (Garrett Hedlund from TRON: Legacy), and it's safe to say that their relationship is probably not limited to sing-alongs. As a personal favor to Kelly, her husband books Beau to be one of her opening acts on a mini-tour of Texas that will conclude, quite naturally, in Dallas. Joining Kelly and Beau is another up-and-comer, former beauty queen Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester), who is nothing if not pretty. Unfortunately, she's nothing but pretty.
Kelly is far from being in control of her demons, so the tour, ill-advised as it already is, has more than its share of problems. Echoing some of the finest, most mercurial talents Nashville has ever generated, Kelly offers a performance under the influence one night, and no performance at all the next. As she spins more and more out of control, her supporting acts spin closer and closer together.
While Country Strong might be positioned as Gwyneth Paltrow's show—she was a featured performer on a country-music-awards show several weeks ago—Paltrow is outshone by Hedlund, who does all of his own singing and has a very authentic, weathered baritone. He's helped by the film's best songs, too, and gives the film a controlled strength not seen elsewhere. Paltrow and McGraw both play their parts, but neither elevates their portrayal beyond the confines of a detailed description.
Writer-director Shana Feste creates one worthwhile character and surrounds him with three that need a lot of improvement, as well as a cloying final act that pivots Country Strong in the wrong direction. As a result, it's unclear what the real takeaway is supposed to be. Is this all a statement about addiction, about fame, about the ripple effect of either or both? Or is this just a combination of otherwise-unrelated components flung together in the hopes that they'll produce something profound?
Country Strong has its moments—mostly when Hedlund sings—but in the wake of recent Nashville-tinged successes like Walk the Line and last year's Oscar-winning Crazy Heart, there seem to be very few variations here. Those same old chords movie audiences know by number are played over and over again, only with much less success.