Tim McGraw doesn’t sing in Country Strong. Instead, he looks on mournfully as others do.
McGraw plays James, a country music industry mentor-manager married to superstar Kelly Canter (Gwyneth Paltrow). (She actually performs with projections of cantering horses behind her.) As the film begins, the couple is having trouble, owing mainly to her addictions and miseries, which recently turned so severe that she fell off a stage—in Dallas, a name uttered repeatedly and ominously—and miscarried her baby. Such loss is, of course, horrific, but Country Strong milks the maternal ache and guilt mercilessly. Again and again, her face turns tragic, and again and again, James looks at her with red-rimmed eyes. When a country music fan sends her a bloody baby doll in a box with a note calling her a “baby-killer” (shades of nasty Vietnam war protestors), she dissolves instantly, claiming that it’s just not fair: just when she might “forget,” someone reminds her.
Forget? Really? Kelly’s diva-lite attitude is of a piece with Country Strong‘s relentlessly awkward psychologizing: Kelly’s sad and damaged, James is sad and passive aggressive, and Kelly’s rehab-facility boyfriend, another country singer named—wait for it—Beau (Garrett Hedlund) is also sad. But he’s sad in a “good” way, being a gentle, soulful fellow who really feels what he sings. He’s also so in love with the music (as opposed to the celebrity and money), that he’d rather stay in his small town and work two jobs so he can perform nights on a local saloon stage for people who “just love good music.” He’s also, Kelly asserts, “one of the good ones,” a man who’s loyal to his woman (except when she wants something other than what he wants).
More than one observer notes Beau’s goodness (the movie tends to pound its points), and indeed, his moral code tends to affect his fellow travelers. This point too is literalized, as James arranges not only for Kelly to leave rehab a month early, but also to take her on the road again, with a climatic show in ... Dallas. When Beau suggests this is unwise, James looks mournful (again). Apparently, he’s not actually craven when it comes to Kelly’s career: he only wants to get their life Back to What It Was. That his plan is downright stupid, not to mention dangerous, doesn’t occur to him.
This may be because the plan includes aspiring country star Chiles (Leighton Meester). A very pretty young thing who tends to freeze on stage but also has a way with lyrics, she hopes this tour with the Canters will be her ticket. If she has to flirt some with James and also Beau, if she must wear dreadful young-country-singer dresses and if she also has to irritate the band members with her self-centeredness and naïvete, well, so be it. If Chiles doesn’t exactly believe the lesson Kelly’s learned—“Ah just think that love and fame cant live in the same place”—- she can’t help but see how unhappy her idol is, especially when Beau makes sure she sees Kelly drunk and falling down with her mascara all over her face.
Beau’s crass effort to make this visible to Chiles isn’t completely his fault. Country Strong is a movie built on implausible coincidences of timing, as well as remarkably clumsy editing and a feeble script (not to mention the use of the title in a song). Whenever a plot point needs to be made, somehow, the two or three folks who need to make it wind up in the same room—or, in the case of Kelly’s instruction on “feeling free,” in the same freight train car (that is: Beau helps her to get away from the tour for an afternoon by taking this tabloid-bait celebrity, already notorious for her bad behavior, train-hopping, a risky and illegal pastime). Once they’re discovered—in a hotel room, in a recording studio, on the tour bus—the wayward couple must then find a way to explain or right the situation. So, Chiles isn’t really sleeping with Beau and then later that same night, not with James either, though each man has to grapple with the possibility.
It turns out that Chiles isn’t just an Eve type (as in, All About Eve), but she’s honestly worried that people will think she’s an “ignoramus.” Beau’s impressed that she knows such a big word, and so deems her not one. Can true love be far behind? And it turns out that Beau isn’t just a know-it-all when it comes to both rehab and performance (he saves more than one show by carrying on while the girls fall apart), but that he’s honestly invested in everyone’s success. Yes, he’s good. And don’t you forget it.