Viewers who desire an in-depth travelogue of the potentially fascinating world of karaoke crooners will be sorely disappointed by "Duets." And the rest of us will find few reasons to hum along, either.
The sophomore effort from director Bruce Paltrow (Gwynnie's dad), "Duets" plays out as a poor-man's version of Robert Altman's "Short Cuts." Its script borrows heavily from Altman's probing exploration of troubled souls; unfortunately, a lack of adequate character development makes much of the film hard to swallow. So does its hokey central plot device, which sees a diverse cast of aspiring vocalists traveling across America to finally connect at a national karaoke sing-off in Omaha, Neb.
"Duets" has already seen plenty of trouble on its way to the big screen. Brad Pitt was initially set to co-star with gal pal Gwyneth Paltrow, but when their off-screen relationship went kaput, the former was replaced by Scott Speedman of TV's "Felicity." The finished product was reportedly a hyper-violent film that didn't inspire much rapture on the part of the Walt Disney Co., corporate parent of Hollywood Pictures. Disney's studio executives "didn't find ["Duets"] particularly funny, artistic, entertaining or anything," it was said. With such distaste registered at the top, it's amazing that the film has made it into cineplexes at all.
Forced edits have eliminated much of the violence, but the remaining footage struggles to establish a coherent tone. What at one instant appears to be a light, romantic comedy quickly shifts to dark and morally ambiguous territory.
The film's title denotes the separate teams of strangers who collide and convene for a shot at the $5,000 prize. Ricky Dean (Huey Lewis, demonstrating a credible knack for big-screen acting) is a karaoke hustler whose trip to Omaha is interrupted by the death of a former lover and the discovery of a daughter, Liv (Paltrow), he never knew he had. Speedman plays Billy Hannon, a likable cabbie who hooks up with Suzi Loomis (Maria Bello), a motorless and penniless karaoke contestant, and is coerced into escorting her to the competition.
But the majority of screen time is devoted to the relationship between salesman Todd Woods (Paul Giamatti) and fugitive Reggie Kane (Andre Braugher). Disillusioned with the American dream, Todd ventures out of his family's home to purchase a pack of cigarettes, wanders into a karaoke bar and never returns. Likewise lured to Omaha, the unstrung Todd picks up Reggie, a hitchhiker and ex-con who turns out to have the voice of an angel and helps them both to qualify for the big prize.
Giamatti effortlessly brings out the humor and tragedy of a man teetering on the brink of insanity, and Braugher lends richness and depth to a killer's run from the law.
But as compelling as their story may be, it feels as if it belongs in another film, instead of messily trying to mesh with the concurrent story lines.
Both of the Paltrows have claimed that "Duets" was a labor of love. One Pitt and several short cuts later, it's simply laborious.