Country Strong (Shana Feste, 2010)
The Jeopardy! Tournament of Champions begins this Wednesday, November 2, and I will be appearing on Friday, November 4. My search engine optimization continues as follows: Jeopardy John Krizel sad movie blog hipster douchebag glasses loser. Get pumped, kids.
Category: Sad movie about country music. The stereotypical country music singer has a lot to be sad about, what with the recent loss of his wife, dog, job, truck, etc etc. If he’s sensitive, he also has to deal with the many thousands of East Coast elite college kids whose Facebook profiles declare their favorite music to be “everything except country.” Not easy, even in these Tea Party times.
This is also a sad movie featuring Gwyneth Paltrow. We’ll get to how I feel about GP, the celebrity, in a bit, but GP the actress has been in some good flicks: The Royal Tenenbaums, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Two Lovers, etc. In those movies, however, she wasn’t the star. We shall see if she can carry a film with both potential sadness AND potential hootenannies. (I may not know a lot about the country music scene, but I do know that that crowd LOVES hootenannies.)
My familiarity with this issue: According to the famous quote by Harlan Howard, “Country music is three chords and the truth,” which to me seems a bit limiting. (There are a lot of great chords out there.) I’ll admit that, short of Taylor Swift’s eponymous first album (featuring the song “Tim McGraw,” one of the stars of this film), I rarely listen to country music. (For the record, I don’t really consider her next two albums “country music.” Tune in next time for another edition of John Arbitrarily Decides What Genre Stuff Is In and Nobody Cares.) For people in my circles, it’s socially acceptable to listen to older country music (like Johnny Cash or Patsy Cline) or alt-country (like Uncle Tupelo/early Wilco), but not mainstream country music, which is regarded as unoriginal or derivative or just annoying.
And again, I’m not above this: I’m turned off by the fact that, to me, most of the artists on country radio stations just sound really similar to one another (which perhaps has more to do with the fact that I’m not familiar with them; I’m sure Pat Robertson couldn’t discern between Tupac and Vanilla Ice). But I appreciate many country artists’ attempts to tell actual stories in their songs. The lyrics of a lot of the non-country stuff that I regularly listen to are rarely very evocative, and hardly any try to tell a story. Country songs are often different. I was once in the car with my mom, and we were listening to “Love Story” by Taylor Swift. The song got to the part where he knelt to the ground and pulled out a ring and said, “Marry me Juliet, you’ll never etc.” And my mom, driving the car, smiles and says aloud, “Awwww he proposed to her!” That’s the power of
country country-pop music right there. (UPDATE: FOTB Allie Hagan correctly points out that one paragraph ago I dismissed the album on which this song is featured as not "country music." The blog is nothing if not inconsistent.)
On the opposite end of the Awesome Spectrum from Taylor Swift is Gwyneth Paltrow. Did you know that she is just like you and me? And that she is attuned to the issues of the common people? Well she is. I don’t like Gwyneth Paltrow. Her children are named Apple and Moses. Those are not acceptable names. She claims that the Oscar that she won for Shakespeare in Love is in storage because, quote, “I don’t want that thing in my house. It scares me.” (GET. OUT.) And so the fact that sad things might happen to her in this movie is not that upsetting to me. As the kids are saying these days, “I am sorry that I am not sorry.”
It should be clear to all of you that I am watching this movie to try to lend some authentic red-state credibility to this fancy-schmancy blog. In keeping with this, I have enlisted the support of a true daughter of Dixie and friend of the blog,
Suri Cruise Allie Hagan. Her thoughts on the film, which, like the rest of the
post, contain SPOILERS (if you haven’t seen this movie already and still want
to know why it’s sad then ugh just shut up and read the rest of the stupid
post, it’s a stupid movie and you’ll probably hate it), anyway where was I? Oh
yeah. Her thoughts are presented below.
Plot summary yoinked from IMDb: “A drama centered on a rising country-music songwriter (Hedlund) who sparks with a fallen star (Paltrow). Together, they mount his ascent and her comeback, which leads to romantic complications involving her husband/manager (McGraw) and a beauty queen-turned-singer (Meester).”
What FOTB Allie Hagan thought of the movie: As a proud southerner, country music enthusiast, and Leighton Meester devotee, I am in the exact demographic that Country Strong should appeal to. But this film was lost on me, due largely to the unlikeability of Kelly Canter. (Casting Gwyneth Paltrow certainly didn't do the character any favors. I mean, have you read her blog?) Yes, I understand that Kelly's troubles are not entirely self-inflicted; Tim McGraw is a hard-ass of a husband/manager who never gave the rehab a chance to work, and Kelly herself has become a broken product of the country music industry. She starts at such a tremendously low point (clumsy-drunk falling off of a stage while five months pregnant) but never even really tries to pull herself up, and this choice (Laziness? Addiction? McGraw-related Stockholm Syndrome?) takes away any potential sadness from her suicide. In fact, I think that was the best part of the whole film. Well, that and when they all sang "Friends in Low Places." Which, by the way, is inexplicably NOT on the 2-volume Country Strong soundtrack. Damn it all to hell.
What I thought of the movie: Yeah it’s really bad. Not the worst thing ever, I suppose. Garrett Hedlund and
Blair Waldorf Leighton
Meester are actually not bad at all, and the music is occasionally fun and jaunty. But
there are a large number of things about this movie that are nonsensical,
offensive, stupid, terrible, or some combination of those four things.
The movie is supposedly about a formerly huge country star attempting a comeback, but that’s really not true. She shows very little interest in being involved with the three-show mini-tour that her husband/manager (Tim McGraw) all but forces her to do. And, more importantly, the movie really isn’t about her. It’s about Hedlund and Meester (who plays a character named Chiles Stanton, and thus I will only ever refer to her as Jackie Chiles from now on), and how they fall in love despite their prior attachments to Paltrow and McGraw. And while the parts of the movie that focus on them are also poorly written and conceived, at least GP isn’t onscreen for them.
The movie tries to pile on the drama at every turn, but it just comes off as terribly manipulative and fake. We learn that GP went into rehab because, as Allie described, she “clumsy-drunk [fell] off of a stage while five months pregnant” and had a miscarriage. (More on this later.) She’s screwing Garrett Hedlund behind Tim McGraw’s back (and doing a really terrible job of hiding it), but it’s OK because (it’s implied) Tim McGraw’s having a thing with Jackie Chiles. There are a lot of backstage recriminations and shouting and secret huge bottles of vodka consumed straight, no chaser. GP can barely hold herself together during the tour, falling apart during one show and skipping a second one altogether. And then she finally puts it all together and rocks the third show… and promptly kills herself immediately afterward. For seemingly no reason. More on this later as well.
The characters are terribly clichéd and one-dimensional and often objectionable. Paltrow’s character is especially terrible. Aside from how annoying she is as an actress, I don’t understand why anyone would root for her character in this movie. She is a drunk, she cheats on her husband and drunkenly punches him in the face, she’s an entitled celebrity, etc. Yeah, she had a miscarriage, but it was her own stupid fault. She does one nice thing in the movie: visit with a kid with leukemia (a visit that her handlers have set up for her beforehand, and yes I know that's how it is for all celebrities, but still). The fact that she has human decency in this scene alone isn’t a reason for us to like her. And that the movie gave us this scene right near the end of the film, practically begging us to like her and feel bad for her when she kills herself, was offensive to me.
Another concern is that the choices that the characters make in the movie have no consequences or dramatic weight. Paltrow’s alcoholism is nothing more than a convenient plot device, and it’s not convincingly put forth as a reason for her to kill herself. The machinations of the Hedlund/Jackie Chiles romance are painfully obvious and tiresome. (Early in the movie, one of the band members teases them, saying "Why don't you just sleep together already?" Tell me about it, bro.) McGraw is sinister and Ike Turner-esque in some scenes, and presented as the victim in others. And worst of all, the characters and the choices they make have no real connection to what the movie tries to present as its deeper message (in Paltrow’s suicide note): that it's too difficult for people to have both love and fame, and that, faced with that choice, we should choose love. Of course, having come to this great realization, she doesn’t quit the business to live a quiet life with her husband. She commits suicide. Because that’s what you’d do.
OK let’s talk about that now. Killing off your main character at the end of a movie is a really major decision. It cannot be taken lightly. There NEEDS to be justification for it. You can’t just do it for no reason. This movie does it for no reason. The character seems to do it because it would be a dramatic ending to the movie about her life. If the movie had been good up to this point, the ending would have totally ruined it. It’s almost better that the movie was terrible up to that point, because I wasn’t let down. It was just another brick in the wall.
How I, John Krizel, related to the movie: Honestly, the fact that I didn’t relate to it at all has very little to do with the fact that it’s about country music. (In fact, as stated earlier, I actually enjoyed some of the music! Take that, STEREOTYPES.) There is very little in the way of authentic emotion happening here. Here is one of many examples of this fact.
Imagine you are a famous country singer. You were five months’ pregnant, but you got drunk anyway, because why not, and in Dallas, during a concert in front of thousands of people, you fell and had a miscarriage. PUBLICLY. You PUBLICLY had a miscarriage. Everyone knows about it, it was totally in Us Weekly and everything. Then, a year or so later, at a press conference, a reporter brings up the fact that the last show of your tour is in Dallas. In this exact scenario, GP kind of chuckles and says, “We all know that Dallas and I have a history, and it’s not such a good one.” She's SMILING when she says it. In that scenario, would you EVER in a million years give such a glib response? She just casually refers to her PUBLIC MISCARRIAGE with that comment and a WRY SMILE. WHAT.
How I felt after the movie ended: Country Strong was dreamed up in the secret laboratory underneath Gwyneth Paltrow’s English castle. She saw that Reese Witherspoon won an Oscar for Walk the Line, so she formulated a country music movie of her own, in which she could sing (oh good LORD does GP love singing these days), and play an authentic American (to try to quiet those who criticize her for pretending to be English, like Madonna), and play a drunkard (Oscar voters love drunkards), and cry a lot and eventually commit suicide at the end (Oscar voters love those things too). And in her ivory tower/secret underground laboratory, it seemed perfect. It would all come off as authentic and heartfelt and brave, and it would win her another Oscar that she could claim to keep in storage when it would really be right next to the other one, on her nightstand.
She failed, though. The movie didn’t work; critics didn’t like it, and it barely broke even at the box office. But I have no doubt that she’s back in the lab now, convening her focus groups of working moms and Joe Sixpacks, trying desperately to capture that elusive spark of inspiration and manipulate it into something that feels spontaneous and normal and average and cute that we will have no choice but to feel charmed by. And then she’ll be profiled in Vanity Fair and talk about her kids and the difficulty of juggling her family and her career and how cool Steven Soderbergh is, and her faux-goofy smile on the cover will seem to say, “No matter how hard I try, I just can’t help being this adorable.” And I will hate her even more for it.
So! Stay tuned for that.