Kelly Canter (portrayed by Gwyneth Paltrow) is one of the biggest country music stars on the planet, and she's also struggling with many demons. A year after a tragic (and very public) accident in Dallas derailed her career, Kelly has emerged from rehab, and is quickly sent back on the road by her husband-manager James (Tim McGraw). James, who is now more Kelly's manager than husband, recruits a singing beauty queen named Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester) to join Kelly's "Encore" tour. Kelly, enamored during her rehab stint with a musically talented intern named Beau Hutton (Garrett Hedlund), insists that he supports Kelly on the tour, as well. James agrees, but only on the condition that Beau's role is sponsor first, musician second. The complex layers of relationships among the main characters is the essence of 'Country Strong'.
All of the actors turn in very convincing performances, Hedlund's not the least among them. Hedlund's turn as a gifted musician more in love with music than with the idea of fame is second only to Paltrow's authentic depiction of the troubled superstar. McGraw gets better with every role that he receives, although his character range might be limited. Meester's interpretation of the "Country Barbie" has legs, and healthy ones at that. Her character was the most well developed in the film, start to finish.
As the writing goes, I found it to be a little sloppy. The emotional pendulum swings so quickly and frantically among the characters, that it becomes difficult to get invested in even one of them, let alone all of them. The story is not difficult to follow, but some instances of interaction are questionable, if not unbelievable. There are also elements surrounding the film that even make it feel a little dated. That said, I did find the pacing of the film to be solid and steady. I also found the victories and defeats that the characters experience I found to be a plus for the movie.
The true strength of 'Country Strong' is the music that is woven throughout the fabric of the story. The variety of country music sub-genres (from classic country to the current, dominant pop-style of country) are all great, and I consider myself a casual country music fan, at best. The real tragedy is that not all of the songs in the film are on the official soundtrack. Paltrow has at least three top-quality songs in the film, all of which she performs herself. She sounds like someone who has been performing country her entire life. Meester's "Words I Couldn't Say", which she also performs on her own, is potentially a #1 single for her. It's really that good. Overall, this might actually be an instance where the soundtrack will outlast the popularity of the movie it originates from.
'Country Strong' amounted to something of a predictable ending, but knowing the destination didn't make the journey any less worth taking for me. As I type this, Rotten Tomatoes critics have this film at 17%. I find this rating to be very unfair, and very harsh. This is an entertaining film that will satisfy the majority of those who spend their money to see it.