As long as it stays with the music and in a larky, serio-comic vein, “Duets” takes the audience for a jaunty spin. A cross-country road movie about three twosomes headed for a karaoke contest in Omaha, TV vet Bruce Paltrow’s second bigscreen feature displays good reflexes for unpredictable humor and gives several of its actors chances to have fun in ways that are agreeably contagious. Careening onto the side shoulder when it approaches weightier matters, the finished film, although R rated, displays scant evidence of whatever contentious content issues reportedly created difficulties at Disney in recent months. Lack of much substance or dramatic payoff makes the whole significantly less than sum of its parts, but OK B.O. in mainstream situations could ensue if the good-time aspects are accentuated in the sell.
In an era when anything less than a million-dollar payoff seems like peanuts, the $5,000 grand prize for the national karaoke competition may hardly seem worth getting out of bed for. But to the life-scarred folks here who have a certain knack for putting over famous songs to pre-recorded music in bars, it seems to justify the effort. Besides, as we’ve so often heard, it’s not the destination that’s important but the trip, and so it is for most of the characters in John Byrum’s snappy, if emotionally glib, screenplay.
Principal figures are slid into the rotation with ease. Ricky Dean (Huey Lewis) is a professional musician who hustles locals at smalltime nightspots by pretending to not even know what karaoke is, then knocking the competition dead. Called to Las Vegas to attend the funeral of a long-ago ladyfriend, he for the first time meets the daughter he had with the woman, Liv (Gwyneth Paltrow), a lovely, slinky thing who, as the granddaughter of a ’50s Sinatra showgirl (Angie Dickinson), plausibly remarks, “I’m as close as you get to an aristocrat in this town.” A real ramblin’ man, Ricky wants no part of her, but it’s clear that ditching her might not be that easy.
Then there’s Todd Woods (Paul Giamatti), a milquetoasty salesman who, after days on the road, can’t even rouse a kiss or a nod of acknowledgment from his family when he wearily returns home. Finally becoming unhinged — “I’m just a little tired of the American Dream,” he later admits — he hits the road to oblivion and somewhere in Utah picks up hitchhiker Reggie Kane (Andre Braugher), a black escaped convict, a philosophically articulate fellow with little to lose himself. On a whim, they team up for a sensational rendition of “Try a Little Tenderness” in a saloon and decide to head for Omaha on a lark.
The third, and by far the least interesting couple are Suzi Loomis (Maria Bello), a hard-bitten waitress with a desperate ambition to make it as a singer, and mild-mannered taxi driver Billy (Scott Speedman), who agrees to take her from the Midwest to California on her provocative promise to “be nice” to him throughout the trip. Although she’s more than willing to provide Billy (among others) with her discounted favors, Suzi quickly reveals herself to be a scheming bitch, and the lack of subtext and vital energy in their relationship makes for downtime during their interludes.
But two out of three is acceptable. Perhaps the film’s biggest revelation is that Gwyneth Paltrow — as if her beauty and acting talent were not enough — has an absolutely fantastic singing voice. As she smokes her way through “Bette Davis Eyes” before an admiring karaoke audience, her father is grudgingly amazed to discover that some of his performing genes have been passed along. Someone ought to write a real musical for Paltrow, and right away. As the tale progresses to Omaha, the reluctant father-eager daughter story is probed in tentative ways, never becoming as searching as it might have been, but watchable thanks to Paltrow and Lewis, with the musician making a solid impression in the Robert Forster/Stuart Whitman dark-looking, gruff-voiced mold.
By far the most engaging of the duos, however, is Giamatti and Braugher. Latter is solid, as always, but Giamatti all but steals the movie as the meek little pushover who becomes a liberated monster of risk and freedom, a self-declared terrorist against the homogeneity of America as represented by the strip malls and chains which are the film’s principal settings.
Giamatti gets the lion’s share of Byrum’s good lines and if the film is to go over with auds, it will be largely due to this character and performance, which reps one of the funniest sustained rants against the lowest common denominator in American culture that has been seen in ages.
To its credit, pic undercuts the competitive aspect of the karaoke final by refusing to celebrate it in the souped-up way that is so commonplace now. In fact, it aborts it through violence in a manner that is dramatically unsatisfying. Immediately thereafter, the surviving characters are tied up and sent on their way in too soft and dismissive a fashion given the time that’s been put in.
Paltrow, the man behind the “St. Elsewhere” and “The White Shadow” TV series, directed just one feature previously, “A Little Sex,” in 1982. He does a solid, actor-friendly job here. British Columbia locations stand in ably for various Western and Middle American locations. Tech contributions are solid, and song selections for the numerous karaoke performances are entertaining.