Duets (2000)

Duets (2000)
  • Time: 112 min
  • Genre: Comedy | Drama | Music
  • Director: Bruce Paltrow
  • Cast: Gwyneth Paltrow, Scott Speedman, Maria Bello, Huey Lewis, Paul Giamatti


Duets is a road-trip comedy which revolves around the little known world of karaoke and the whimsical characters who inhabit it. There’s the struggling singer who dreams of making it to the big time, a frustrated salesman who ends up on an unexpected road trip, the dysfunctional family performers which includes a con-artist and his long lost daughter, and an escaped convict with the voice of an angel. All roads lead to Omaha, site of a national karaoke competition where this motley group of singers and stars come together for a blow-out sing-off.

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  • For comedy/dramas or “dramedies” as one might call this form of film, the blend of humor and human characters is essential to creating believable story lines. The way of going about this has been done multiple ways. A frequently picked method of execution is “the separate story threads conjoining at the finale” direction. Although not anything new, it is a common way of telling individual stories that share a common theme and then bring them together at the end for one grand congregation. The most recent movie that came to mind when thinking of this type of storytelling goes to John Herzfeld’s Reach Me (2014). Although entirely stepped on by official critics, it wasn’t entirely a waste of a film. It was quick on the draw for certain parts of its script but it also had a positive overall message about improving oneself as a person using unique characters. In some respects, the way this movie was presented felt somewhat in the same vein.

    Different groups of people from various areas of the U.S. enter a karaoke contest in the hopes of being awarded $5,000 as the winner. Along their travels, they learn things about themselves and each other. Sounds simplistic enough right? It is in fact, but this is not the problem. The issue lies underneath all that once looked at under a closer lens. The screenplay, written by John Byrum (The Razor’s Edge (1984) and Mahogany (1975)) suffers from three factors. One is that the movie cannot find a clear tone in its entirety and its three independent story lines. One story is about a selfish karaoke hustler named Ricky Dean (Huey Lewis) who discovers after his distant wife passed away left him his daughter Liv (Gwyneth Paltrow). Then there’s Todd Woods (Paul Giamatti), a rundown salesman who gets tired of the same old same old and leaves his life behind while running into just released convict Reggie Kane (Andre Braugher). Lastly is Billy (Scott Speedman), a guy who just got cheated on and discovers new girl Suzi Loomis (Maria Bello) who has a knack for getting what she wants by sacrificing her dignity.

    It’s difficult to say which story feels the most sympathetic. The father/daughter struggle could’ve been heartwarming all the way through but instead is kicked around as a nuisance and is only quickly reconciled later on. The adventure salesman/convict thread only seems to get more uncontrollably rash and negatively misunderstood the longer the characters are on screen. As for the lonely guy/new girl parable, the play out often feels like a dark raunchy comedy that was meant for another film entirely. With all the inconsistent tones, the film as a whole doesn’t work that well. What exactly are you trying to be movie? Unfortunately with the confusing tone brings up the second issue with the screenplay and that’s the story lines not complimenting each other in some way. How does one find a comparison between these three-mismatched story threads? Finally, the last issue (which is probably the biggest and most noticeable) is that the whole concept of karaoke isn’t of main focus for a lot of the running time. It’s actually more of a backdrop and that’s rather sad due to the pros that are about to be listed next.

    As much as the problems mentioned prior bring down the film a lot, there are positives to bring up and these points at least show it had the potential to be better. For one, the acting is solid. Every main character has a certain personality and the actor portraying that character fits it nicely. Even Huey Lewis, for the small amount of times he’s acted plays it cool (although arrogant). Paul Giamatti gets more and more psychotic as time progresses and his dialog gets more and more garbled. Maria Bello with a Southern accent is different and her attitude is quite sharp. This is just a few from the tip of the iceberg. Now if only the characters were actually written better. Also just for fun, there are a couple of cameos viewers may not be aware of. For one, Michael Bublé has an obvious appearance but is still fun to see him doing what he does best (singing that is). There’s even a quick shot of Terminator (1984) director James Cameron having some fun. Weird but intriguing.

    The cinematography was adequate too. Shot by Paul Sarossy (Exotica (1994) and The Sweet Hereafter (1997)), there’s a mix of outside and inside shots. However even for inside camerawork Sarossy manages to keep the camera moving substantially without being distracting. This at least gives the audience something to look at and get an idea of where they are and the scale at which the setting is taking place. Finally the music, which is a mix of instrumental score but mostly singing was good. The best part of this film is seeing the actors actually sing. Other than Huey Lewis (for obvious reasons) singing, who knew Gwyneth Paltrow, Paul Giamatti, Andre Braugher and Maria Bello could sing so well? It was very believable and certainly made the performance feel a tad more emotional. Again though, if only those characters were written better. The best sung song from the film would be the popular single “Cruisin'” (originally by Smokey Robinson) covered by Huey Lewis and Gwyneth Paltrow. A very smooth and enjoyable song. The score produced by familiar composer David Newman was also appropriate. It was anonymous but useful for the scenes required, this time.

    Sadly even with catchy songs sung legitimately by the actors, good camerawork and solid acting, the entire execution is just a hodgepodge of ideas that don’t coalesce as easy as it should have. The individual story lines don’t match in tone, which doesn’t make the film understandable in its message and the whole concept of karaoke isn’t focused on like the premise promotes. It had potential but wasn’t utilized properly.

    Points Earned –> 5:10

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