Gwyneth Paltrow plays a fallen star. (Sony Pictures photos)
There are two different movies doing battle with one another in "Country Strong," writer-director Shana Feste's mixed bag of a country music comeback fable. One is the story of Kelly Canter (Gwyneth Paltrow), a middle-aged country superstar attempting to battle her way back from a bout with alcoholism that landed her in rehab and resulted in the death of her unborn child.
The other is about two rising artists, authentic singer-songwriter Beau Hutton (Garrett Hedlund) and beauty queen Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester), both looking to break into the country music biz.
The stories coexist but don't quite gel. Still, the actors, especially Hedlund (currently starring in "Tron: Legacy") and Meester (bad girl Blair Waldorf on TV's "Gossip Girl"), and the film's headstrong finale make the trip better than average.
As the movie opens, Kelly is being yanked out of rehab early by her music mogul husband James (Tim McGraw), who's eager to stage a comeback with her whether she's ready or not. A few months prior she was arrested on charges of being drunk and disorderly, all while she was five months pregnant with the couple's baby.
Inside rehab, Kelly is sharing songs — and a little bit more — with Beau, a young upstart playing to drunks in honky tonks on weeknights. As her sponsor, he protests her leaving rehab before she's rehabbed.
Meanwhile, James has his professional eye on budding star Chiles, a pageant queen who yearns to sing country but has no real experience. Her first time on stage she bombs, and is left hanging in front of an audience before Beau steps in and rescues her. Then James offers both of them the chance to come on the road and open for Kelly, who's booked a series of live dates through Texas.
It's during Kelly's first concert back where Feste's script starts to falter.
With no visible rehearsal, Kelly hits the stage and makes a drunken mess out of herself, canceling the show less than one song into the performance. In the real world, videos of the on-stage disaster would flood the Internet before the house lights in the venue came up, but in the movie she's able to get away with an excuse that she suffered a bout of food poisoning.
Sorry, but not in this day and age.
There's another scene later in the movie where Kelly skips out on a show in Austin and is found whooping it up on stage at a nearby dive bar; pretending TMZ wouldn't immediately have video of the incident takes "Country Strong" out of the world and into fantasy land.
Another problem is that none of the movie's songs stick. Jeff Bridges won an Oscar last year for playing aging country music sad sack Bad Blake in "Crazy Heart," and it didn't hurt his cause that you left the theater still humming his songs.
"Country Strong" doesn't pay near enough attention to its music, and without any knockout songs on the soundtrack, it makes it tough to believe Kelly Canter is worthy of the comeback she's after.
Oscar winner Paltrow, taking on her most substantial role in years, carries the film's hefty emotional scenes but lacks the self-destructive crazy streak that makes her character such a volatile star. She never disappears into the role, and during her concert scenes it's hard to forget she's Gwyneth Paltrow playing a country queen.
Hedlund and Meester are better, and when the film focuses on their stories it strikes a more winning note. Hedlund shows vulnerability and charm, and there are times when he seems like a young Heath Ledger. Meester, playing the opposite of her snooty "Gossip Girl" character, gets better as the movie goes on when she's revealed to be more than a one-note caricature of a beauty pageant lifer.
Credit the film for not trying to mirror the story of any real life country stars. Though there are shades of some actual singers, there's no gossipy aspect to the film where you're looking to figure out who's who. It's purely a work of fiction.
Also credit Feste's surprise ending, which takes the film in an unexpected and gutsy direction. If the whole movie had as much strength as its close, "Country Strong" might have really lived up to its title.