review by Elias Savada, 22 September 2000

If karaoke were an Olympic sport, this American entry would finish out of the medal round. Way out. If Disney wants to call this a comedy, then alligator wrestling must be an Olympic sport. Thereís not much to laugh at, and, based on itís measly $2 million opening weekend figure (in only fifty-plus markets, some of you will be fortunate), itís way out of the competition. The rest of the country will have to wait for the home video release. If itís playing at a theater near you, wait it out till it pops up on free TV.

Itís paltry Paltrow. Bruce as director and daughter Gwyneth as one of the stars, although the parallel story lines subjects her role to a fraction of the 112-minute running time. Itís been eighteen years since his last commercial feature, the dreary A Little Sex, but it does share the same reaction: What the heck is a made-for-TV film doing in movie theaters? With a career firmly set behind the little screen, heíd be better off looking for his next holy grail. He found it before with The White Shadow and, one of my all-time favorites, the marvelous hospital drama St. Elsewhere. Letís pray he finds gold again. Unfortunately, with Duets everythingís leaden, especially Mr. Paltrowís direction and the clichťd characters from screenwriter John Byrum (Valentino, Sphinx, The Razorís Edge, and a handful of other non-entities).

The story pairs off threadbare characters who will eventually converge in Omaha, Nebraska for a $5,000 Grand Prize Karaoke Contest (press materials: ďtheir lives intertwine, revealing the funny, raucous world of Karaoke bars and chain hotels that link the interstates of Middle America.Ē) I heard one big sigh after another watching this unravel (alright, that was me), but the other ten people in the audience, scientifically polled and probed after the screening, confirmed that there was nothing funny or raucous in Duets. They preferred the post-viewing probing 9-to-1.

There are some seasoned actors in the cast, particularly Andre Braugher and Paul Giamatti, but they have horrible, cardboard-thin characters written for them (oops, everybody does). The score card has gruffy Ricky Dean (singer/actor Huey Lewis) as a veteran karaoke hustler (honest!) stinging smaller bar singers with his poker face. When told that a long-estranged acquaintance has died, he inherits their only common possession: a daughter/third-generation Vegas showgirl (Paltrow) heís never know. Sheís sweet and sheltered; heís a loner. They both have good voices at least.

Next up: frazzled traveling sales executive Todd Woods (Giamatti), who experiences burnout on the road (grievous angst for flaunting environmental laws and allowing a theme park water slide to wipe out the breeding grounds for some endangered turtles) and at home (wife Candy canít talk now: sheís busy on the Internet; and heís a ghost to their two uncommunicative kids). Itís a sad imitation of Kevin Spaceyís Lester Burnham character in American Beauty. Very sad. Supposedly out in search of a pack of cigarettes (so what if he doesnít smoke: itís good for a running gag), he gets drugged and confused by a karaoke singer before taking up the microphone himself at the Pacific Inn hotel bar and belting out Hello, Itís Me. Oh boy, heís hooked now! He picks up hitchhiking ex-con Reggie Kane (Braugher) and they hit the road stalling, mostly because none of the dumps they visit (caution: another running gag ahead) are willing to take his 800,000 frequent flyer miles for a free nightís stay. These new-found friends have some of the darker moments in the film, but I suspect Braugher couldnít have had a gloomier time embodying his convict-with-a-heart-of-tarnished-gold role.

Who else: Felicityís Scott Speedman is here as Billy, the half-owner of an aging station wagon cab. When Billy find his balding partner in bed with Billyís girlfriend, a reformed lesbian, he hops in his taxi and heads out of town. Destination? None other than the meaning of life. Instead he finds cute Suzi Loomis, an ex-waitress who offers a male-oriented oral barter payment plan in lieu of cash. Good for a paint job, hotel room, or trip to California.

This drivel is about as upscale as a laminated karaoke menu. Itís a shaggy dog story thatís a dog. Is there a market for this kind of small-potatoes karaoke kompetition in an age where Regis gives away millions three times each week. No. And thatís my final answer.

Directed by:
Bruce Paltrow

Gwyneth Paltrow
Huey Lewis
Maria Bello
Paul Giamatti
Andre Braugher
Scott Speedman
Marian Seldes
Kiersten Warren
Angie Phillips
Angie Dickinson

Written by:
John Byrum







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