Paltrow plays Kelly Canter, an alcoholic wreck of a country singer recently sprung from rehab by her manager-husband James (McGraw). She’s been seeing rising performer Beau (Hedlund) on the side; and upon her release, is thrust into a comeback tour that’s as ill-advised as it’s premature. Beau is pressed into opening for her, just as James has taken a liking to “Country Barbie” ingénue Chiles (Meester), poised to become the Next Big Thing.
The acting is fine: Paltrow is in full-on Bette Midler-in-The Rose mode as the self-destructive singer and, frankly, deserved a better movie for her efforts; McGraw (the one person in the cast who’s actually a country star) is so blindly devoted to making Kelly into a superstar, he’s lost track of what matters. Hedlund does what he can but the script takes whatever balls he has during the first half and neuters him.
The idea of pitting the new flavor of the month against the aging queen is interesting, and it’s not like we’ve seen that story told against the backdrop of country music, a genre that’s even more manufactured and convoluted than pop music. But the movie has no interest in holding the music industry responsible for anything, and misses the obvious at almost every turn.
Country Strong really only had two options: it could have gone the subversive route: Kelly’s problems could have been a reaction to a corrosive music industry machine that treats media superstars like currency by management and paparazzi alike. The other option would have been to go full camp melodrama. You’ve got an insecure alcoholic, the overbearing husband manager, the earthy stud, and the up-and-comer.
Can you imagine the cheesetastic possibilities? Alas, Feste’s drama aspires no higher than rounding up four vaguely difficult characters who all had more dramatic lives before the movie started. I’ll give her credit for the out-of-nowhere ending, but it’s a false coda, when so much of the dialogue contains winners like “I just don’t think that love and fame can live in the same place.” (Screen Gems)
— DENNIS WILLIS