POINT ACROSS: Feste’s ‘Country Strong’ avoids being cliché

Published 7:00 pm Saturday, January 15, 2011

Just when Britney Spears managed to duck under the celebrity gossip radar, they go and make a movie about her.

Well, not exactly.

But the pop star and the lead character in “Country Strong” do bare striking parallels, and the film’s director/writer Shane Feste told the Los Angeles Times that the lead role was inspired by Spears. The downfall of Spears may not have been pretty, but her train wreck in fictional form works in this surprisingly well-crafted musical drama.

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Gwyneth Paltrow stars as Kelly Canter, a country music superstar who has fallen from grace after severe alcoholism forces her to check into a drug rehab clinic. It’s later revealed that she had hit rock bottom after falling off a stage drunk during a performance, several months pregnant, killing her unborn baby. But what should have been a sobering event only pushes her deeper into self-destruction.

We first meet Canter as her husband and manager James Canter (Tim McGraw in a non-singing role) checks her out of rehab and pushes for a comeback tour, with opening acts that include Kelly’s secret lover Beau Hutton (Garrett Hedlund) and ex-beauty queen Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester). Kelly and James Canter each suspect the other is committing adultery with Hutton and Stanton, respectively, and Hutton and Stanton become romantically involved themselves as each tries to resurrect or launch his or her own career.

Paltrow leads the destructive way, nailing the part of a narcissistic celebrity hell-bent on sinking her career. Paltrow pulls it off, but has the monumental task of receiving sympathy for character who is a recovering alcoholic who lost her unborn baby as a result.

After leaving rehab, she carries a baby bird nestled in a small wooden box as a metaphor for the loss of her child. As she cares for the bird, everyone around her is attempting to pick her back up, and the choices made begin to leave a terrifically unsettling feeling.

The music works well – and two of Paltrow’s songs, “Coming Home” and “Country Strong,” are up for postseason awards — and helps convey the somber tone as Canter’s career begins to slip from grasp. Possibly the only thing missing was a singing part for five-time CMA award-winner Tim McGraw, but kudos to the execs for not forcing that into the script. (He does have a song on the soundtrack.)

“Country Strong” isn’t the upbeat musical it appeared to be. Instead, Feste takes what could have been a cliché storyline and makes an original tale that, for the better, doesn’t go where you think it will.

Looking forward to…

Seth Rogan co-wrote and stars in “The Green Hornet,” which opens this weekend. It will be interesting to see if this comic book adaption can mix satire and action, and rise above the intentional campiness of the 1960 series.

“The Dilemma,” a comedy starring Vince Vaughn and Kevin James also opens this weekend. The Ron Howard-directed and Brian Grazer-produced film also features Winona Ryder and Jennifer Connelly in supporting roles, making for what looks to be an odd combination.

Herald Audience Manager Adam Harringa’s column appears every Sunday.