Some of the best country songs are the ones that tell a story - ones that feature vivid imagery, a strong narrative drive and a killer emotional payoff.
In telling the story of a self-destructive singing superstar, "Country Strong" hints at the possibility of delivering that kind of moving experience, but ultimately it's too meandering and uneven to ever truly tug at your heart.
Writer-director Shana Feste's film occupies an uncomfortable sort of middle ground. It's not rich enough, and its characters aren't developed enough, to be a searing drama or a portrait of artistic torment; "Coal Miner's Daughter," this is not. But at the same time, it isn't over-the-top enough to be enjoyed as a divalicious guilty pleasure like "A Star is Born" or "The Rose."
Still, "Country Strong" has its moments, mainly in the music, all of which is enjoyable if not earth-shattering and is actually sung by its stars. We already knew Gwyneth Paltrow had a voice on her from the dubious 2000 film "Duets," which her father, the late Bruce Paltrow, directed. It even spawned a hit song for her and Huey Lewis: their remake of Smokey Robinson's "Cruisin'," cheesy as it was. Here, you'd actually like to hear more from her: It would help us better get to know her character, six-time Grammy winner Kelly Canter, and the songs she does sing on stage are so massively overproduced, it's hard to tell what she actually sounds like.
Instead, Kelly comes off as a jumble of cliches that could apply to any country star, rock star, actor or artist - any performer whose creative gifts are weighed down by internal baggage. She's in and out of rehab and her boozy benders are legendary; she was drunk, and five months' pregnant, when she fell off the stage in Dallas, prompting her latest attempt to dry out.
That's where she is at the film's start, and where she's having an extramarital fling with one of the rehab center's employees, Beau Hutton (Garrett Hedlund), who has his own musical aspirations. Kelly's husband and manager, James (Tim McGraw), pulls her out of treatment a month early to get her back on the road, and insists that a beauty queen and wannabe country starlet named Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester) come along as her opening act. Kelly wants Beau to open for her, and so they all end up embarking on a three-city Texas tour.
From there, "Country Strong" plays out as a series of flirtations and dalliances, breakdowns and inebriated episodes, none of which seems to carry any more significance than any other. And of course, there is the obligatory moment in which a vodka bottle gets thrown against a wall mid-tantrum.
As a sensitive honky-tonk hipster, Hedlund gets a chance to show a bit more personality than he was afforded in the recent "Tron: Legacy," and Meester is endearing as a Taylor Swift-style up-and-comer whose peppy, insipid lyrics belie a damaged past.
McGraw, the real-life country star who should, in theory, ooze authenticity in this setting, instead comes off as a bit of a cipher - and he's the only actor who doesn't get to sing. Feste's script never gives James and Kelly the opportunity to discuss the loss of their unborn child, which devastated both their marriage and her career. Instead, she relies on a painfully clunky metaphor: a wounded baby bird, which Kelly finds at rehab, carries around in a box and feeds with a dropper. Seriously.
What's frustrating is that "Country Strong" has its moments. A scene in which Kelly offers her veteran's advice to Chiles has an honesty that the rest of the film often lacks, and Paltrow reminds us she really can act - and not just over-emote with her face covered in smeared mascara - when Kelly visits the classroom of a little boy with leukemia.
But when she's saddled with trite lines like, "Don't be afraid to fall in love, it's the only thing that matters in life," even the multitalented Paltrow can't make them sing.
Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements involving alcohol abuse and some sexual content.
Starring: Gwyneth Paltrow, Garrett Hedlund, Tim McGraw, Leighton Meester
Running time: 111 minutes.