Raw and painful autobiography is intrinsic to country music. Booze often goes hand-in-hand with this confessional, storytelling genre, so the fate of Kelly Canter (Gwyneth Paltrow), a superstar in rehab in “Country Strong,” is an unsurprising one. The movie has all the elements of an inspirational hymn to making it in the country music game, not just boozing but also love affairs, cheating, striving for fame and even some great songs. It carries you for a while on its ups and downs before you realize something essential is missing, and not just a more realistic lead to carry it.
We meet Kelly, a character reminiscent of Faith Hill, undergoing treatment at a rehab center in Nashville. While working out a tune with her new buddy Beau Hutton (Garrett Hedlund, from the new “Tron”), an orderly at the center, Kelly is plucked out of her room by her husband, James (Tim McGraw), who wants to get Kelly back on the road to save her career. Beau thinks it's too soon, and to help keep Kelly off the bottle, James invites him along for the ride, along with Beau's acquaintance Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester). They're both aspiring country artists, thank God, and good ones. The four head off on the highway for an assortment of affairs, breakdowns and setbacks along with the slow climb to the top.
“Country Strong” has an excellent soundtrack but is marred by a shaky story from an unseasoned director who draws an unconvincing performance from her star. There are some nice moments, but the story has a void that acts as a sinkhole to everything else. What's missing is Kelly's back story — how she got to where she is and why we should care. That it never arrives, not in a conventional flashback or in dialogue, is the most glaring but not the only shortcoming in writer and director Shana Feste's script. Gussied up and given a backing band, Kelly remains about as familiar as a real music star in the pages of a popular magazine. Her emotional ups and downs are given melodramatic flourishes, but we learn little about her inner life.
The movie fares a little better with secondary characters Beau and Chiles, opening on the beginning of their careers, allowing more easily recognizable character arcs revealing their personalities. Both are also well cast. Hedlund received criticism for being just another hunky dude in “Tron Legacy,” like Sam Worthington in “Avatar,” but he's absolutely believable as a country musician. Meester, a regular on television shows such as “Gossip Girl,” is never doubtful as a pop wunderkind who has more talent than sense. Meester also portrays one in real life.
Beau and Chiles gradually move to the center of the story, which plays things too safe — Kelly's problems seem more than the routine tribulations of a famous person. She goes on benders and makes scenes at big concerts like the protagonists in so many other musical dramas. What's missing is her perspective on the events.
It doesn't help that Paltrow is wrong for this role, which would have worked better with a more multifaceted actress such as Charlize Theron. Paltrow is too cold and stiff, attributes not suited to a country gal. Her onstage performances are only slightly more convincing. Her one really shining moment comes belting out the movie's title song, but it's part of an ensemble that includes boot-scooting about a two-step too close to camp for comfort. To say her singing is not to be missed is not always a compliment.
Those reservations aside, the undisputed star of “Country Strong” is the music, a good thing because the tunes tend to cover up the blemishes. The songs are memorable, culled from a variety of originals and covers. The Top 40 numbers feel just as authentic as the honky-tonk ballads, even though the former are distinguished by the characters as pop — somehow separate from “real” country. Hedlund and Meester do the best singing. Country fans will wonder why country superstar McGraw doesn't get a turn at the mic, and it's difficult to come up with a good reason.
“Country Strong” needs more than one suggestion, however. Why didn't they make Chiles the protagonist? Meester had a parent doing time in prison once, just like her character. That's the kind of synergy that keeps country music strong. (PG-13) 112 min.