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by: Scott Renshaw

In the opening scene of Duets, director Bruce Paltrow establishes with little room for doubt that we have fled reality for its hideous cinematic doppleganger. In that scene, a weathered-looking fellow in horn-rims named Ricky Dean sits in a karaoke bar, taunting the hot-shot kid who has just wowed 'em from the stage. Ricky feigns ignorance about "karateoke," then bets the kid that he can win the competition out from under him.

Of course the bet proves to be a hustle, but the problem is the casting. As Ricky dazzles the crowd with his rendition of Joe Cocker's "Feeling Alright," we're left with the baffling realization that Ricky is played by Huey Lewis. The kid's jaw drops, the patrons shriek, women throw themselves at him ... not for the Voice of God, but for the competent, breathy chops of Huey Lewis. This isn't the Eddie Felson of the karaoke set we're talking about; it's not even the Eddie Money of the karaoke set. It's Huey. Freaking. Lewis.

For the next 108 minutes or so, Duets leaps from that implausible scenario to scenarios even less plausible, turning it into a character study in which inhabitants of the planet earth are nowhere to be found. Essentially it's a road picture, switching back and forth between three less-than-dynamic duos converging on a big karaoke contest in Omaha. The aforementioned Ricky is on his way, with a tag-along named Liv (Gwyneth Paltrow) who happens to be the daughter he's never met before. Brassy Suzi Loomis (Maria Bello) also has designs on the prize, and a reluctant chauffeur in recently-cuckolded cab driver Billy (Scott Speedman). And Todd Woods (Paul Giamatti), a career salesman having a mid-life crisis, has also become a born again karaokist, accompanied by a career convict named Reggie (Andre Braugher) he picked up hitchhiking.

Duets is one of those "When Bad Movies Happen to Good Actors" experiences that makes you wonder whether anyone involved actually read the script before committing. It's particularly sad watching Giamatti and Braugher do the buddy bonding thing with such shallow characters. Giamatti makes for such a wonderfully manic schlub that he's entertaining to watch in spite of the material; Braugher has presence, but he can't bring any depth to a character that's ultimately supposed to be tragic. Paltrow does a nice ditzy bit, but that's the one note her character is allowed. In fact, that's true of every character in the film. Bello, Speedman, Lewis and company are all playing characters with one note, one epiphany and one grinning resolution. These aren't performances; they're cries for help.

Paltrow the elder offers none, and goes one better by actually making matters worse. A talented television director with little feature film experience, Paltrow puts his film together in such a disjointed manner that even well-constructed characters would have been hard-pressed to emerge intact. Close-ups become medium shots for a couple of seconds for no apparent reason before returning to close-ups; ostensibly comic scenes linger and dawdle with no punch. Paltrow does have the paternal generosity and good sense to let the gifted cinematographer Paul Sarossy shoot Gwyneth lovingly. There's no pacing, no momentum and no point.

There is, however, plenty of karaoke. Duets seems constructed with the desperate hope that viewers will be entertained enough by the musical numbers -- lifted heavily from the pop music glory years of the late '70s and early '80s -- that they'll ignore the complete absence of personality in anyone singing them. For the record, Gwyneth Paltrow has a sultry, insinuating voice, and does justice to both "Bette Davis Eyes" and Smokey Robinson's "Cruisin';" also for the record, there is no need for cross-cutting between a police action and plus-size comic John Pinette's gyrating rendition of "Copacabana." Unfortunately, that's fairly typical of the skewed world served up in Duets


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