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So, Let’s Talk About the Ending of Country Strong

Country Strong, starring Gwyneth Paltrow as a singing, dancing, Southern-accented alcoholic country singer, finally came out in wide release over the weekend. It didn't do that well at the box office, possibly because people who love Gwyneth are waiting to watch her on Glee, possibly because people who love Gwyneth don't love country music, possibly because not that many people love Gwyneth. (We know, we know, that last option is plain ol' crazy talk.) But we saw it, and we want to talk about it, because something sort of surprising happened at the end. SPOILER ALERT.

At the end of Country Strong, Gwyneth Paltrow's character, country-music legend Kelly Canter, dies. Yup. Dies. That's pretty country weak, no? (Heeeeey! Rim shot!) Having been pulled out of rehab early to do a three-show comeback tour, Kelly bumbles the first concert and fails to show up for the second. At the third in Dallas (where she once performed so trashed, she fell and miscarried while onstage), she finally gets her shit together and puts on a great show, which includes this performance and the scene where she tells Leighton Meester's character, "That's how it's done." Then she goes to her dressing room and intentionally overdoses on prescription medication.

At the end of Country Strong, Gwyneth Paltrow's character, country-music legend Kelly Canter, dies. Yup. Dies. That's pretty country weak, no? (Heeeeey! Rim shot!) Having been pulled out of rehab early to do a three-show comeback tour, Kelly bumbles the first concert and fails to show up for the second. At the third in Dallas (where she once performed so trashed, she fell and miscarried while onstage), she finally gets her shit together and puts on a great show, which includes this performance and the scene where she tells Leighton Meester's character, "That's how it's done." Then she goes to her dressing room and intentionally overdoses on prescription medication.

While we generally prefer it when movies we go see almost entirely for camp value don't end in tragedy, we sort of understand — theoretically anyway — why director and writer Shana Feste went in this direction. If the movie climaxed with Paltrow's character putting on a triumphant show, the message would have been the cheap "everyone recovers from addiction!" arc, in which there are no consequences and people with serious psychological problems get healed by, like, the power of love and an adoring crowd. What we don't understand is why in sidestepping this addiction cliché, Country Strong instead took the position that women who want to have it all are so delusional they may end up offing themselves in a dressing room one day.

Throughout the film, Feste shows a single-minded dedication to the idea that "love and fame can't live in the same place." This is perhaps a superficially interesting position for a director of movie stars to take (what does Paltrow think?), but, in execution, it's retrograde. Kelly Canter has chosen fame (her career) over love and a functional life. The choice has hollowed her out to the point that she dies because of it. Ladies, you can't have both! And if you somehow missed the message, Feste includes a scene near the end of the film in which Canter advises an up-and-coming singer (played by Leighton Meester) that love is all that matters, so she really should put that burgeoning career on hold and follow her adorable fella out to California.

Meester's character takes the advice, giving this movie with the unexpected suicide an unexpected "happy" ending. It's sad that Kelly killed herself, but the girl and the boy end up together! It plays like Country Strong doesn't even have the courage of its bummer of an ending convictions, but if you think about it, it totally does: A talented young woman gives up on her ambitions to spend her life with a handsome, sweet, stubborn, and self-righteous manly man because an unstable alcoholic advised her to? Bummer, y'all.

Photo: Sony Pictures