The world of karaoke must be filled with quirky, offbeat characters. It must be riddled with people who truly live to don sequins and suede and stride up on stage to belt out tunes for fun and prize money. Duets promises to capture these very people in that very world, to show their hearts and humanity, their dreams and their drive. Instead it delivers, for the most part, mundanity and a muddled message about the soulless nature of American society today.
Duets is comprised of three interlocking stories about pairs of characters brought together by karaoke. It’s an often awkward and overly-loose plait. Occasionally the right notes are hit, but for the most part it’s all just a little off-key.
Firstly there’s an ageing karaoke hustler Ricky Dean (Huey Lewis), who is oddly reunited with the daughter he’s never met, Liv (Gwyneth Paltrow), over his ex-lover’s casket. He’s heading – as will all the characters – to a karaoke competition in Omaha. Liv tags along and discovers she’s got her father’s voice; but can she win his affection too? Lewis shows that although he can carry a tune very well, his acting skills are clunky and robotic. Gwyneth is in gawky mode, all flailing limbs, doe-eyed stares and hallmark-card sentimentality.
Then there’s Billy (Scott Speedman), a sweet-natured person whose girlfriend is sleeping with the guy he owns a cab with, and karaoke-addict Suzi Loomis (Maria Bello, whose performance is one of the film’s highlights), who steals beggars’ cups and offers to give guys blow jobs in lieu of cash when she’s shopping. She only tells Billy that she’ll be nice to him, however, and he agrees to drive her across the country.
The final pair are a middle-aged corporate businessman Todd Woods (Paul Giamatti) and an ex-prisoner the cops are again hunting, named Reggie (Andre Braugher). Todd’s having a mid-life crisis, but has been saved by karaoke. When he picks up the hitchhiking Reggie, it’s clear that Reggie’s going to have his chance to be saved too.
Although the film revolves around all its characters, Todd is the focal point, and this is one of the films problems. Having spent the past 18 months of his career trying to ruin a turtle’s breeding ground in the name of a new fun park, he’s suddenly wondering about the values of corporate America. Couldn’t he see from the outset that what he was doing was screwed? Yet somehow we’re supposed to feel sorry for him as he turns proselytiser, warning others about the conversion of America to strip malls, but finding himself whole again when he’s standing in front of a blue-screen karaoke machine, popping beta-blockers to still his nerves.
Yes, it’s this art-form from Japan, home of the neon light and consumerism, that’s supposed to be giving Ricky his new lease on life. "I can’t go back to being who I was before. I sing. I’m different now," he tells his baby-faced wife. Somehow I don’t think director Bruce Paltrow is aware of the irony of karaoke being the safety net of Ricky’s leap from sad middle-class existence, that he has to find solace in adding his unique voice to tinny background music that’s usually the last thing in the world anyone would really want to dance to.
But in Duets, the crowds are joyful. The crowds clap wildly and mouth words that don’t match the music actually playing, and they look like they’re really digging the music too. It just doesn’t gel.
The characters peppering this meandering road movie are either flat or too much of a caricature themselves to be believable. Fatally, I found myself wishing to watch a documentary about the real people who inhabit this intriguing world of glitz and glamour. Now there’s an idea for a good movie…