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'Duets': Singularly Off-Key

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 15, 2000


    'Duets' Gwyneth Paltrow lets loose in "Duets." (by Rob McEwan/Buena Vista)
"Duets" is a conceptual train wreck, with half an idea scattered like disaster debris all over the screen. The engineers responsible are the suits and uncredited hack screenwriters at Walt Disney, who have turned a potentially interesting premise-amateur singers from all points of the American compass who live and breathe karaoke-into another fatuous Mouse Factory vehicle.

Who are these karaoke hopefuls? For starters, there's Ricky Dean (Huey Lewis), the karaoke equivalent of a pool hustler, who cons singers into dropping $1,000 bets for bragging rights. He wins every time because he's, well, Huey Lewis.

Watch him belt out that Joe Cocker song. Watch the crowd-like the hired Disney extras they are-suddenly pick up interest, applaud and start whooping and cheering.

Ricky is one of several performers heading for Omaha to win the $5,000 prize for the Grand Prize Karaoke Contest. His competitors include:

Todd (Paul Giamatti), a salesman who's had it up to here peddling bad schemes, such as destroying the East Coast's last piece of pristine beach (not to mention an endangered turtle breeding ground) for a theme park. (We must assume it was not a Walt Disney theme park.) On the way to buy some cigarettes, he walks into a bar, hears karaoke for the first time and finds a new calling.

A road-tested female singer named Suzi Loomis (Maria Bello), who wants to be a recording star in California. On her low-budget road trip to stardom, she offers the kind of services Julia Roberts did in Disney's "Pretty Woman" to pay her way. But she can belt out a song.

Billy (Scott Speedman), a cab driver with the teeth of a model (such real people in Disney films), who is searching for, like, what it all means, you know? He was thinking of being a priest once. Suzi Loomis persuades him to drive her from gig to gig. And this underachiever goes along for the ride.

Liv (Gwyneth Paltrow), an innocent, sweet-natured showgirl from Vegas, whose need to reunite with her estranged father-one of the competitors-leads her to the contest and into the arms of-well, that's for you to find out.

Reggie (Andre Braugher), an ex-con whose concealed gun rubs up against an even more powerful weapon-his unused heart. Reggie's an angel. And he sings like one, too.

Apparently trying to maintain an edge, scriptwriter John Byrum (the only one credited with this screenplay) throws in a little sexual action and heavy language-not much, but enough to get the R rating. But he makes sure there is a sort of goofy positivism as well. These offbeat characters are all saints in the making, naive spirits or lovable rogues. They have hopes and dreams just like us taxpayers. They need love, companionship and self-realization. Oh, and a little prize money wouldn't hurt. You're supposed to want to hug every one of them, including Paltrow's Liv, a sort of Tinkerbell presence, whose affirmative spark has all the tungsten power of a dead light bulb.

But singing karaoke isn't enough. In "Duets," no one can really sing with conviction until they connect in more personal ways with the one they're with. And when they achieve this harmonic convergence, you know what's coming, don't you? Yes, hugs. Cheering and hugs. I have to stop now. It's getting hard to write this through the tears.

DUETS (R, 113 minutes) - Contains nudity, sexual situations and bad language. Not to mention Disney poignancy. Area theaters.


© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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