After she won her Oscar in 1998 for Shakespeare in Love, Gwyneth Paltrow slowed down her career and focused on her personal life. Her father, Bruce Paltrow, passed away, she married Coldplay singer Chris Martin and the couple had two children.
Barring a few minor roles here and there, Paltrow returned to work in the Iron Man franchise, but the film's focus was on Robert Downey Jr., with Paltrow only needing to report to set three times a week for shooting.
Now the actress is reclaiming the spotlight with the music-filled drama Country Strong. Paltrow plays Kelly Canter, a country music star who leaves rehab before she is "rehabbed' to begin a comeback tour staged by her husband James (Tim McGraw).
Their relationship is severely broken for numerous reasons -- her addiction, the loss of an unborn child to name a few. But it gets further complicated by the two opening acts that join the tour -- Beau Hutton (Garrett Hedlund) who also happens to be her sponsor, and Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester), James' new protégé who threatens Kelly's career and possibly her marriage.
Not that Kelly herself is clean in the love department. In rehab she falls for Beau and once on tour, vacillates between him and James. She's also hyper aware of how close Chiles is sidling up to James or how much the audience adores the new girl in down, which creates an All About Eve dynamic.
Paltrow easily delivers the best performance of her adult life, playing a woman who has many demons to battle. The strength to keep it together threatens to fall apart constantly, yet it never once veers into melodrama. (While researching her character, Paltrow even sought out help from Downey Jr. in understanding an addict's self-destructive behavior.)
The acting performance aside, the surprising part is seeing Paltrow belt out tunes, play the guitar and strut on stage as if she was born and raised in the heartland. Those familiar with the actress' filmography know she can sing, as witnessed previously in films like Duets and Infamous. But in recent years she's been more known for the unsolicited advice she gives on her GOOP website or appearing in the front row at fashion shows with detached coolness. Seeing her getting on some country flair is downright refreshing.
In one of the film's most touching moments, Paltrow grants a young boy his dream of meeting Kelly Canter through the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Kelly visits him in his classroom at school and ends up having a dance with him.
Paltrow's handling of the little lad (played by Gabe Sipos, who is in real life a cancer survivor) is a joy to watch. Her face lights up in his presence. It's a look that that's impossible to fake - no matter how many Academy Awards you've won -- because only someone with children could possibly glow like that. Paltrow's motherly instincts are in high gear here and she's never looked more beautiful than in that moment.
Director Shana Feste's strength is weaving in each of the four main characters with one another. Kelly adores Beau, but has been with James to long and has too much history with him to ever leave. Beau eventually begins to fall for Chiles, but her ambitions make her feel the need to sidle up to James.
Despite this being Paltrow's film, Feste gives Hedlund and Meester plenty of moments to shine -- and both take full advantage of that.
Hedlund, best known as the star of the 2004 film Friday Night Lights, delivers a star-making turn in the film. He's at once handsome, rugged and manly yet possesses an innocence and vulnerability. It's a 180 degree turn from his stiff performance in the current Tron: Legacy where he bears not even an ounce of charisma or on-screen presence. Country Strong signals Hedlund's arrival as a leading man and if anyone will get any sort of career mileage from this movie, Hedlund is the one.
Meester, meanwhile, is perfectly cast as Chiles, a former beauty pageant queen who longs for a music career, but has fears and issues of her own. Meester brings both a sense of humor and sympathy to the character.
Though she's best known as rich girl Blair Waldorf on the CW series Gossip Girl and for her pop singing on a few top 40 songs, her work in Country Strong gives Meester much credibility as a feature film actress.
McGraw, ostensibly cast to lend some country realism, does not sing at all in the film, which is one of the reasons he was attracted to the role. (He does, however, duet with Paltrow on the film's soundtrack. They sing "Me and Tennessee," a song written by Chris Martin.) Though James appears to only care about Kelly's career, McGraw plays adds in some moments of tenderness during those few times James is able to look past all the hurt and pain that's accumulated over the years.
Feste's script has some weak links, most notably having Kelly carry around a little baby bird that she found in the forest at the rehab facility. Its obviously meant to symbolize the baby she lost, but that comes across as silly and cheesy rather than effective.
Several plot points are a little too convenient as well. Beau works at the rehab and happens to be an aspiring singer? And gets the opportunity to tour with the biggest country singer around? Really? And with all his aspirations, he'd rather perform in a tiny little bar than for large crowds? Yeah right.
Despite those minor infractions, the actors give 150%, making Country Strong an extremely enjoyable film.