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Country Strong

Frankly, I'm amazed that Gwyneth Paltrow even had time for a vanity project, what with all the hours she devotes to her blog, her famous family, feature roles in summer blockbusters and guest appearances on Glee. And as vanity projects go, Shana Feste's music melodrama Country Strong is no trifle. It's a veritable tour-de-force: Paltrow sings, (sort of) dances, and treads stoutly though such hazardous emotional territory as addiction, infidelity, heartbreak, and even martyrdom, decorating it all with a thick Texas twang to boot. The woman spends half the film with mascara streaming down her face, for God's sake. How does she find room in her busy schedule for such strenuous pursuits? One hopes an illuminating Elle article on the matter, chock full of useful tips, is forthcoming.

In the film, Paltrow plays Kelly Canter, a famous country singer whose successful run of platinum albums and sold-out shows is interrupted by a stint in rehab. Chronic overindulgence being something of a sacred tradition in the country music world, one would expect a drying-out period to be a relatively ho-hum chore for such a seasoned performer. But Kelly's experience is complicated by the circumstances surrounding her booze-drenched downfall, which, among other things, led to a miscarriage.

Given her obviously fragile state, we can sense disaster looming when Kelly is plucked from her treatment facility a month early and thrust onto the comeback trail by James (Tim McGraw), her withholding and chronically insensitive husband/manager, a man who can't even summon the marital compassion to grant his recovering wife welcome-home sex, despite her having "just got one of them Brazilian bikini waxes." Folks, if a hairless crotch can't reignite the passion in your relationship, then surely it is beyond repair.

But couples therapy must wait; a career-resuscitating tour beckons. Three shows have already been scheduled, for which two opening acts have been booked: Beau Hutton (Garrett Hedlund), a grizzled singer-songwriter with whom Kelly happens to be having an affair; and Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester), a semi-literate Dallas beauty queen James hopes to make his next star, and with whom he presumably plans to have an affair -- if he hasn't already. (Cherubic, dulcet-voiced Meester is made for the role, though it's hard to imagine the ultra-petite Gossip Girl star winning many pageants in a state renowned for its preference for all things oversized.)

Such combustible ingredients make for one extra-spicy, Texas-sized bowl of dysfunction. And so it comes as little surprise when Kelly falls off the wagon moments before her first performance, after all of five minutes (in screen time) of sobriety, when an offensive parcel sends her headlong into a bottle of vodka. A co-dependent whose "co" is now devoted strictly to business affairs, she turns to her secret paramour, Beau, for validation. But Beau, having already sensed the gravy train falling off its tracks, has now set his sights on the younger, less damaged quarry of Chiles. With no one else to turn to, Kelly falls back on more reliable partners, pills and booze, with predictably dire results.

Helmer Feste directs much of our venom over Kelly's plight toward McGraw's tone-deaf husband, while Hedlund's character emerges morally unscathed. This is bothersome: Beau, after all, is the one who bedded a recovering addict at her most vulnerable point and subsequently abandoned her for a girl who, if she isn't jailbait, acts as if she were. We're meant to admire him for his uncompromising devotion to his art and accompanying disavowal of fame, celebrity, and other corrosive pursuits. But the truth is he's little more than a modestly talented country rake, and kind of a mean one at that.

Never mind him. Gwyneth/Kelly doesn't need a man to feel fulfilled, right? Right? Country Strong's third act seems initially to agree, steering us toward a redemptive conclusion in which the fallen star discovers her inner Country Strength and reclaims her career, sans the exploitive dudes. But director Feste has no such plans. In order to drive home her main point - that fame and fortune aren't worth the sacrifices required to attain them -- she serves up an ending so ludicrously tragic that it borders on tragicomic. And it effectively negates the campy fun of a film stocked with so many cheesy (albeit catchy) songs and soap-opera hysterics. What a country crock. rated this film 2 1/2 stars.