Country Long - correction, Country Strong - is a backstage romantic quadrangle set at the fork of the roads to redemption and ruin. It stars Gwyneth Paltrow as Kelly Canter, Nashville canary trapped in fame's gilded cage.
Like some country ballads, Shana Feste's musical melodrama is as emotionally potent as it is narratively inconsistent. Initially, Kelly loves her husband/manager, James (Tim McGraw), who has eyes for a young thrush, Chiles (Leighton Meester), who has a yen for singer/songwriter Beau (Garrett Hedlund), who's crushing on Kelly. Partners change at regular intervals, which makes things unpredictable - and psychologically incoherent.
Feste's film is designed as a high-performance comeback vehicle customized to Paltrow's specs. She is touching in the quiet moments, noodling on a guitar while improvising lyrics. After a slow start, she commands the hard-drinking, heartbreaking passages as if on Patsy Cline overdrive.
In art-imitates-life fashion, Paltrow plays a star on her way back and Hedlund one on his way up. The film's central theme is that love and fame are mutually exclusive. Beau sings for the love, not for the money. He joins Kelly's overproduced comeback tour as an opening act not because he wants to be in the big leagues, but because he wants to take care of her.
With his assured performance, Hedlund (Tron: Legacy) steps into the worn cowboy boots of Heath Ledger, working furrowed brow and easy smile to suggest a man in conflict. Like Ledger, Hedlund swallows words to near inaudibility and has a gallant restraint that draws others - especially his female costars and his audience - to him.
When the film opens, Kelly is Britney Spears in boots, doing time in rehab after an alcohol-fueled onstage fall that resulted in a miscarriage. At rehab she meets Beau, a hunky orderly who moonlights as a honky-tonk singer/songwriter. He is protective of her eggshell fragility in a way that James, who says he loves Kelly for her strength, cannot fathom. James sure must miss his meal ticket, because he pulls wifey out of rehab weeks early so she can start a comeback tour.
The glaring weakness of Country Strong is James, underwritten and ambiguous, more like Kelly's pimp than her manager. Is he punishing Kelly by booking Chiles, a Taylor Swiftish newcomer, in order to make his wife feel anxious about aging? Why does he shrink from Kelly's embrace?
As Chiles, Meester has genuine screen presence. But like McGraw, she is saddled with a character who changes more often than an iPod on shuffle. It's hard to get a fix on her.
While Paltrow belts out the title anthem with conviction, it is the younger performers who sing more intimate, and moving, numbers that advance the story rather than merely stating it. But as persuasive as Hedlund is, not even he can rock a line like "I don't think love and fame can live in the same place."