Duets (112 minutes) 2000/Rated R – starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Paul Giamatti, Andre Braugher, Maria Bello, Huey Lewis, Scott Speedman, Steve Oatway, John Pinette, and Angie Dickenson. Directed by Bruce Paltrow. Released through Hollywood Pictures (currently in theatres).
When singing duet with a partner, it’s always smart to make sure both members are keyed to complementing tones. Otherwise the song will sound wildly uneven. Tone is seriously uneven in the new film “Duets.” And I’m not talking about the songs. They’re just fine. Actually, they’re the best thing about the film. It’s the scenes which surround each musical showcase that seem to warble off pitch.
The cathartic rush of singing your heart out before a roomful of strangers, in this case, karoake competitions, serves as the common denominator in the lives of six characters searching for a way to discover themselves. Gwyneth Paltrow plays an innocent, babe-in-the-woods, Vegas showgirl who yearns to make a connection with her long-lost dad after her mother passes away. The father, Huey Lewis, is a hustling karoake singer (do these guys exist?) who travels the country, pulling a Fast Eddie Felson on anyone stupid enough to challenge him to a sing-off competition. Couple number two consists of Maria Bello as a trashy, recalcitrant West Virginia waitress eager to fellate her way west to a dreamy life as a California recording star, and reluctant Scott Speedman, a down-on-his-luck, jilted, Cincinnati cabbie she’s coerced into chauffeuring her. The final duo comes together when frazzled sales exec Paul Giamatti melts down and leaves his “perfect” suburban Arizona life and snaps up heart-of-gold, ex-con Andre Braugher hitching on a lonely Utah highway. The three sets of lost souls will eventually converge on a $5,000 karoake competition in Omaha, Nebraska by film’s end.
The catchphrase that is uttered constantly (battered to death I should say) by the Giamatti/Braugher team is that there’s been “an error in judgement” in their lives. In their case it’s Braugher’s life of crime and Giamatti’s over-the-top rebellion from his complacent life. This, of course, translates to the other two pairs as well (i.e. Lewis not having made contact with his little girl all those years, and Bello basically selling her soul to achieve a dream). The problem with this set-up is that we can see the resolutions coming for everybody about 15 minutes into the film. There are virtually no surprises or curve balls to spice up the mix. The picture would have been far more interesting had all six of these characters been thrown together in a plot situation early on which would have forced some unpredictability to the storyline.
As it is, the Giamatti/Braugher scenes are the most compelling, yet they eventually fall completely out of whack in tone with the other pairs’ scenes. Giamatti has a bug-eyed charm that elicits laughs as he initially unleashes his wild side. His coming-out solo rendition of Todd Rundgren’s “Hello It’s Me,” and his duet with Braugher on “Try A Little Tenderness,” are truly showstoppers (Paltrow’s much-heralded duet with Lewis on Smokey Robinson’s “Cruisin’” doesn’t generate quite as much heat). But as Giamatti’s antics become more violent, we’re left wondering what happened to the charm? After he and Braugher murder a convenience store clerk, the tone lurches into “dark” territory, even though director Bruce Paltrow (Gwyneth’s dad) doesn’t seem to understand this. Braugher, and particularly Giamatti, barely register the cold-bloodedness of their deed because the story demands they have a message-laden, ludicrous climax at the ol’ karoake main event.
As for the other principals, Maria Bello chews up her scenes with Speedman, almost as if he’s a ghost she’s walking through. His character is insignificant and barely worthy of screen time. As for Paltrow and Lewis, there’s only wisps of genuine emotion between them, and it’s mostly, sorry to say, the fault of Lewis. While both characters are fairly one dimensional, Gwyneth is able to convey some depth of feeling with her smile and her pout. Lewis, who’s supposed to be distant, nevertheless, gives us no clue as to how his character is feeling through his reactions and actions. Even during the obligatory, emotional, “I-just-want-your-love-Daddy” scene that occurs before the conciliatory duet, Lewis stands still, absolutely fossilized, like he has for the entire film, never letting us see a genuine human character inside.
The recommendation to see “Duets” lies in its duets. For if it’s carefully-crafted, people-pleasing, top-forty favorites you want to hear in THX surround sound with your date by your side, “Duets” is able to deliver on that front.
© 2000 Ned Truslow