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Dustin Putman

Dustin's Review
Duets (2000)
3 Stars

Directed by Bruce Paltrow
Cast: Maria Bello, Andre Braugher, Paul Giamatti, Huey Lewis, Gwyneth Paltrow, Scott Speedman, Marian Seldes, Kiersten Warren, Angie Phillips, Angie Dickinson, Lochlyn Munro.
2000 – 112 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for language and some sexuality).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, September 15, 2000.

A road picture about three different sets of people traveling to Omaha to perform in a $5000 karaoke tournament, Bruce Paltrow's "Duets" is an offbeat and occasionally quirky little movie that, like all successful ensembles, gradually builds upon its energy, depth, and momentum the further we get into it. We not only grow to care about the characters and what they mean to each other by the conclusion, but we also realize that director Paltrow's and screenwriter John Byrum's purpose was so much larger--so much more honest and telling--than spinning a story solely about karaoke hopefuls. All six of the central characters are looking for that one special thing that will make them happy. Ultimately, not all of them fully find what they are looking for, but they discover things about themselves, and the world, that make them somehow wiser--more assured, less confused and lonely.

Switching between three subplots that inevitably converge at the karaoke contest in the conclusion, "Duets," like last year's wonderful "Go," never loses track of any of its characters, nor does its energy falter. Todd (Paul Giamatti) is a disgruntled traveling salesman tired of going unappreciated and ignored by his family who snaps one day and, while supposedly going out for a pack of cigarettes, simply keeps on driving. While in a New Mexico bar, Todd is egged on by a beautiful local to try his own hand at karaoke singing, and to his disbelief, loves it. Soon, Todd has met the good-hearted Reggie (Andre Braugher), an ex-con just released from prison and with a curiously shady past, who becomes both his traveling companion and good friend.

When singing extraordinaire Ricky Dean (Huey Lewis), who hops from karaoke bar to karaoke bar across the nation, slyly hustling others and making good money off of it, learns of the death of a past close relationship, he drives down to Las Vegas for the funeral, and in the process, meets his daughter for the first time. A wide-eyed, sweet-natured showgirl, Liv (Gwyneth Paltrow) decides to follow Ricky to Omaha to spend time with him, hoping to build a relationship with her remaining parent.

Finally, cab driver Billy (Scott Speedman), an idealistic young man who, at one point, wanted to become a priest, has just discovered his girlfriend has been cheating on him. Wallowing in self-pity at a local bar, he meets Suzi (Maria Bello), a singing hopeful who doesn't have any money, but knows how to use her sexuality to get what she wants--including a ride to California from Billy. Along the way, they catch word of the karaoke contest, and set out for a detour to Omaha themselves.

Handling separate storylines all at once is a risky undertaking in film, with the possibility of a certain vignette overpowering the others, or worse, coming off as uneven without anything of interest to say or do. Director Bruce Paltrow (whose only other feature film has been 1982's "A Little Sex") smoothly handles the frequent plot transitions and portrays all of the characters as children--that is, lovingly and with a sharp eye for detail. Sort of like a slightly less ambitious Robert Altman ensemble (think "Nashville" set in the world of karaoke, rather than country music), this is not supposed to be a criticism, but simply a fair comparison between a smaller-minded and more intimate motion picture, rather than a sprawling epic with twenty-some main players.

The cast is talented and fully believable--each one making a lasting impression, including the brief supporting appearances by such actors as Lochlyn Munro (2000's "Scary Movie") and Angie Dickinson. Paul Giamatti, arguably the center of the film and the character which receives the most screen time, is touching and acceptably off-kilter as Todd, a man who says he is tired of the American Dream, and wishes to do nothing but live the rest of his life the way he wants to live it. Andre Braugher is perfectly cast as Reggie, who wants to get his troubled life back together, and never expects to meet someone like Todd at the turning point in his own life. Giamatti and Braugher perform a showstopping version of "Try a Little Tenderness" that is as exciting and full of life in its three minutes than this weekend's action picture, "Bait," is in its entire two hours.

Scott Speedman (TV's "Felicity") shows a genuine spark of charm that has previously gone unnoticed for him, and he proves that he could very well have a prosperous future career in films. Maria Bello (2000's "Coyote Ugly") is possibly the least developed of the six protagonists, but is still given ample material to work with, and does a mean performance of "Sweet Dreams Are Made of This."

Kudos to director Paltrow for realizing that, since the film revolves around karaoke clubs, and hinges on the success or failure of depicting such a world, it would only be truthful if the musical numbers were performed in full. Each of the numerous songs are vibrantly brought to life by the performers, all of which, aside from Braugher, used their real singing voices. A particular surprise is Gwyneth Paltrow (1998's "Shakespeare in Love"), the biggest name in the cast and the daughter of the director, who turns out to be extremely talented as a singer, as well as an actress. Paltrow's Liv is a different, interesting character for her--more childlike and innocent, less refined. Her rendition of Kim Carnes' "Bette Davis Eyes" is delightful, and her climactic duet with her father, played admirably and with an added dose of tough realism by Huey Lewis (1993's "Short Cuts"), in which they both somehow come to terms with their newfound relationship through the words of Smokey Robinson's "Cruisin'," is one of the most indelible film moments of the year.

"Duets" rarely goes for cheap laughs (although it does get many genuine ones), obvious melodrama, or out-of-the-blue plot twists, and like real life, develops in an authentic fashion. An unforeseen event does occur in the picture's final minutes and uncovers the many hidden truths behind the film's true reason for being. "Duets" is not about who gets the girl, or who wins the big tournament, or who will go on to become professional singers. It would like you to believe it is, at first glance, but it isn't. It's a motion picture about a group of characters--everyday people like you or me--who find redemption and personal gratification where they least expect to. "Karaoke is a way of life," someone says early in the film. This film proves that the same goes for human yearning, dreaming, and affection.

©2000 by Dustin Putman

Dustin Putman