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Karaoke Cacophony

By Megan Rosenfeld
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 15, 2000

   


    'Duets'
Gwyneth Paltrow sings her heart out in dad-directed "Duets."
(Buena Vista Pictures)
The creators of "Duets" understand one true thing about the American psyche: Deep down, everyone wants to be a rock star. Not just famous, but a singer bathed in spotlights, commanding a microphone, a throbbing beat and an adoring audience. In this ambitious movie set in the strange yet oddly familiar world of the karaoke bar, everybody gets to be a star, if only for three minutes.

If scriptwriter John Byrum hadn't tried to cram every possible theme into this film–hoping, no doubt, they would all add up to greatness–"Duets" would be an entertaining, wryly observed slice of Americana. And the movie in which Gwyneth Paltrow is directed by her dad, and sings. (She's not bad.) Instead, we get an all-you-can-eat buffet of suburban angst, father-daughter reconciliation, anti-growth environmentalism and pessimistic commentary on modern life in general. I've probably missed a few tropes, but I was stuffed about halfway through and had to push myself away from the table for a while.

Byrum and director Bruce Paltrow tried to fashion a karaoke version of Robert Altman's "Nashville," without the country music. Six lost souls are groping their way across the country toward their dream of success, in this case the karaoke championships in Omaha. Each journey has an arc, and the lives of the six (who travel in pairs, thus "Duets") intertwine and disengage periodically when they end up in various garish or bleak-looking bars, trying to win the karaoke prize money of the night.

(For those who have somehow escaped this fad, karaoke is a machine that displays the words to popular songs and plays the music while the "performer" sings along. So all the would-be Sinatras, Madonnas and Britney Spearses can inflict their fantasies on an indulgent audience. "Karaoke is a way of life," says more than one character in "Duets.")

One of them is Todd (Paul Giamatti), a new convert eager to learn "K talk" and make the circuit. On the lam from his deadening job as a theme park developer and his indifferent family, and hopped up on pills and junk food, he embraces karaoke as a religion, an authentic experience in his otherwise synthetic life. He picks up a hitchhiker, Reggie (Andre Braugher), a dignified gent in suit and tie who is also an ex-con and a terrific singer.

A karaoke hustler, Ricky Dean (Huey Lewis, formerly the genuine rock star of Huey Lewis and the News), makes his way from bar to bar, pretending to be an ignorant geek who doesn't know how to sing. A telephone call summons him to a chapel in Las Vegas and the funeral of an old girlfriend. There he meets his daughter (Paltrow), who longs for Daddy and persuades him to take her along for the ride.

Meanwhile (there's a lot of meanwhile in this film), a Cincinnati waitress, Suzi Loomis (Maria Bello), hooks up with a newly cuckolded young taxi driver, Billy (Scott Speedman). She wants him to drive her to California, where she's sure to become a big-time singer.

The scene ricochets from one city to the next, from one anonymous hotel lobby or parking lot to another. Todd and Ricky often don't know where they are. Tulsa? Houston? Dislocation! We get the point. But they do a pretty job of creating the scene, the smell of cheap motel carpeting and rooms that have never had real air, populated by people who have never eaten real food.

Odd characters pop in and leave, like Billy's third-grade teacher (Marian Seldes), out of jail on a shoplifting charge. She treats him to a lecture–"the world is a sewer and we're all living in Hell"–and calls him an underachiever. "I'm just trying to achieve something else," he says.

As for Gwyneth, despite her dry-looking yellow hair and tawdry micro-skirts and her chance to showcase her pipes, this is not one of her better turns. She's too old to play a teenager, and her speech sounds like baby talk. Lewis is more convincing as her roguish dad. Both his face and his voice are like rutted gravel roads, and when he takes the microphone the place really rocks.

Braugher is brilliant, as usual, but I was disappointed to learn that his singing is augmented with another voice (Arnold McCuller). The other four singing leads are using their natural talents, and Bello is particularly impressive. She's got a powerful presence and is fun to watch.

Giamatti, in the ugly every-schnook role, becomes more tiresome the crazier he gets. His breakdown goes on way beyond the point that anyone can care, and highlights the author's overlong digressions before he gets all these people into the same room.

And the ending–without giving it away, let's just say they blew it. Whatever goodwill the movie has built up by this point is decimated by a grandiose reach for Shakespearean tragedy. Plus, we never get to find out who wins the karaoke contest!

DUETS (R, 113 minutes) – Contains brief nudity, profanity, a little sex and some violence.

 

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company


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