Who's In It: Gwyneth Paltrow, Garrett Hedlund, Leighton Meester, Tim McGraw
The Basics: Alcoholic country music superstar Kelly Canter (Gwyneth Paltrow) is the Amy Winehouse of the heartland, a born performer haunted by demons she can't seem to shake. Yanked out of rehab to mount a comeback tour she's not yet ready for, the emotionally fragile chart-topper finds herself on the road with her estranged manager-husband (Tim McGraw), her secret boy toy/opening act (Garrett Hedlund), and a pretty young singer hungry for fame (Leighton Meester). Bed-hopping, illicit flirtation, and plenty of drunken relapses ensue as the incestuous makeshift showbiz family plays Texas en route to a soapy finale in Dallas, where the biggest "Oh no they didn't" gut punch of them all awaits. Bring Kleenex, y'all!
What's the Deal: There are pleasures to be found in Country Strong, and they're mostly of the same variety: guilty, like the most delicious soap operas and reality TV meltdown shows you'd never admit to watching. Helmer Shana Fest, responsible for both the script and its uneven execution, has a predilection for moving the story along with melodramatic cornball devices and clunky directorial choices – but thankfully, her cast rises to the occasion to fill in the gaps. At the center of it all is Paltrow, who carries the film with a sultry confidence, charismatic and compelling whether she's a hot mess in a bathroom stall, playing mentor-lover to the scruffy Hedlund, or serenading a Make-a-Wish kid while still wearing last night's mascara. She basically lives through almost every tragic country song ever written in the form of a dusty-glitzy backstage musical, only no one gets shot and nobody's dog dies.
But Is She Really, Truly, 'Country Strong'? Apply too much scrutiny to Country Strong and its ultimate message is a bit mixed up. Unless the meaning of being 'country strong' is not getting addicted to booze and fame and adultery in the first place. So just sit back and relax and enjoy comparing what happens to Gwyneth Paltrow to folks like Britney Spears and Mindy McCready and be glad nobody's asking you to be a big time famous person with major self-destructive issues that make you pop pills and shave your head and melt down in public while all the world is watching.
Why Garrett Hedlund Owns This Movie: Surprisingly, the musical stand out of the cast isn't actual country music star Tim McGraw, whose only filmed number was cut from the final film. Meester and Paltrow ably warble their way through the poppier country numbers, but it's Hedlund who makes the biggest impact, both dramatically and musically. As the cigarette-smoking, cowboy hat-wearing, no frills, honky-tonk crooner hero of Country Strong, he is smoldering, masculine country soul personified, singing Merle Haggard with an assured rasp and a twinkle in his eye. More to the point: he is sexy as hell -- idealistic, sensitive, and scruffy, with a gentle down home twang. When Meester's beauty queen is compared to Carrie Underwood and Hedlund to Townes Van Zandt by an industry rag in the film (Her response: "Who's Townes Van Zandt?"), this girl's heart melted that much more.
For Fans Of: Classic country, high melodrama, Gwyneth Paltrow, whiskey-soaked barrooms, romantic movie clichés, the 1993 country romance The Thing Called Love, backstage musicals, celebrity train-wrecks, boys who smell like cigarettes and play guitars, southern accents, Garrett Hedlund.