Gwyneth Paltrow is country superstar Kelly Canter, a Faith Hill-esque figure (presumably with added hedonistic tendencies) who has fallen on hard times. Finishing a stint in rehab, she’s due to stage a comeback tour, although her mental and physical wellbeing may not be ready for such a demanding activity. Manager/husband James (Tim McGraw – ironically, the only bona fide country star in the film who doesn’t sing) however, is convinced this is just what she needs in order to make it back to the top again. Much to the annoyance of her husband, Kelly insists on bringing with her on tour as a supporting act, a young hospital orderly and aspiring singer-songwriter (Tron: Legacy’s Garrett Hedlund, swapping a light cycle for an acoustic guitar) whom she has formed an intimate bond with during her hospitalisation.
Emotions are further tempered when jealously rears its ugly head as a beauty queen-turned-singer (Leighton Meester) joins the tour as James’ protégé. Can Kelly make it through to the all-important dates, or will she be doing bourbon chasers while popping those pills by the time the tour reaches Dallas (the setting and catalyst for her previous downfall).
In the past few years in particular, the world of country music has created a fascinating outlet for both real-life and fictitious cinematic lost souls who are battling their demons and trying to regain the magic touch the once possessed. Some have even reaped the ultimate Hollywood accolade for their portrayals, with Oscar nods for both Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash and Jeff Bridges finally picking up the statue via Crazy Heart.
Although acquitting herself quite well in the singing department (and her recent guest spot on TV’s Glee is further evidence that she has the chops) unfortunately, Paltrow just doesn’t have the range to play a fragile and week-willed addict, and as her performance is the crux of the film, this is a major issue. When Kelly’s husband keeps lamenting about her success in the past and acknowledging that “she used to be tough as nails”, you don’t buy into that at all. One of the reasons behind her stay in rehab is due to behaviour which contributed to the death of her unborn baby, but as the character is so shallow and one-dimensional, the audience’s sympathy is never there for her, despite this tragic revelation.
A stronger actress in the lead may have elevated the film to a so-so drama, although Shana Feste’s unambitious and pedestrian direction doesn’t help either. The film looks like one of those made-for-TV movies and apart from the odd glimpse of Kelly’s destructive behaviour (which don’t really push the boundaries of decency and taste anyway) the film wouldn’t seem out of place in one of those mid-afternoon screening slots on terrestrial TV. The only touching scene is delivered when Kelly pays a visit to a school during the tour, and plays to a young child suffering from leukaemia. It helps that the kid looks genuinely sick, but we’re also offered a fleeting look at a warm and maternal side to the singer – an interesting and conflicting aspect an to an otherwise cold and detached character, which is never really exploited again in the film.
The two younger co-stars fare much better. Meester (best known for TV’s Gossip Girl) initially comes over as all naïve and innocent, but is able to imbue her character with a strength and level-headedness which is very appealing. Hedlund too is surprisingly good, and handles the singing side admirably, his gravelly voice completely lending itself to a heart-felt country ditties he croons. It wouldn’t be surprising if he isn’t already fielding offers from potential records companies on the quality of his work here.
The fine efforts of the supporting cast can’t save the film though, and the overly-melodramatic and emotionally contrived ending, which seems to come out of nowhere, doesn’t ring true at all. What’s left is an essentially hollow and lifeless piece, enlivened by some impressive musical numbers and a couple of decent performances, but little else.
If country music is your thing, give the film a miss and download the soundtrack instead.