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DUETS(director: Bruce Paltrow; screenwriter: John Byrum; cinematographer: Paul Sarossy; editor: Jerry Greenberg; cast: Maria Bello (Suzi Loomis), Andre Braugher (Reggie Kane), Paul Giamatti (Todd Woods), Huey Lewis (Ricky Dean), Gwyneth Paltrow (Liv), Scott Speedman (Billy), Lochlyn Munro (Ronny Jackson), Kiersten Warren (Candy Woods), Marian Seldes (Harriet Gahagan), Angie Phillips (Arlene), Angie Dickinson (Blair); Runtime:112; Hollywood Pictures; 2000)
“I have a good feeling about this film and think it will stay around as a cult favorite and grow in status over the years.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

“Duets” is the second feature film by longtime TV producer Bruce Paltrow (A Little Sex), it stars his daughter Gwyneth. There are also some interesting casting choices such as, a cameo for Angie Dickinson as Gwyneth’s grandmother and a starring role for the noted singer Huey Newton. His facial expressions remind me of actor/director Sydney Pollack.

Duets is a cross-country road film. A comedy/drama whose stage is karaoke, which uses that setting to explore the hopes of three twosomes headed for a karaoke contest in Omaha.

The characters search for what went wrong in their lives, as they try to come to terms with their family crisis: Ricky Dean (Huey Lewis) is a selfish, enigmatic karaoke hustler. He meets his daughter — a Vegas casino girl named Liv (Gwyneth Paltrow) — for the first time at the funeral of her Vegas showgirl mother; Todd Woods (Paul Giamatti) is a toady traveling salesman who goes out for a pack of cigarettes after coming back from flying to Houston on a business trip, but doesn’t return because he’s displeased that he gets a chilly reception from his suburban wife and kids. Todd leaves his family and becomes a deranged monster railing against American culture and the misuse of the frequent flyer miles perks the airlines advertise but do not deliver on. He will give ex-con Reggie Kane (Andre Braugher) a ride, and their odd friendship will center around the salesman trying to break the chains of his empty life by taking mood-altering drugs and singing karaoke. Lastly, a young, underachieving, angelic Cincinnati cabdriver, Billy (Scott Speedman), reluctantly agrees to drive an edgy waitress and hooker, Suzi Loomis (Maria Bello), with ambitions to be a singer, to California. Billy wants to get away after he catches his wife sleeping with his taxi partner. When Suzi wins her karaoke competition, they go to Omaha for the finals.

The salesman story is the featured one, evoking a sense of the American culture being deadly to one’s psyche. This story is the most bizarre and implausible one in the film, but it has the strength of bringing out a number of small truths that add up. Its impact is helped greatly by the engagingly nuanced performances of Giamatti and Braugher. I first thought Giamatti, who is not a household name as an actor, was Wallace Shawn. Giamatti, who turns from a meek salesman to a terrorist-like maniac symbolically waving a gun at America’s false dreams, gives the film its finest vitality as he gets to emote all screenwriter John Byrum’s best lines.

The two things this film has going for it in spades are the lively karaoke music and its weird comedy. The stories don’t exactly interconnect for these disenfranchised folks but it shows what happens to them psychologically when they come to a crossroads in Omaha, making it appear as if they are appearing at an event as important as the Super Bowl. The contest gives them their chance to heal their wounded egos, as they steal another’s talent for a few moments and call it theirs.

The film starts off in a karaoke bar in Tulsa where Ricky is a karaoke hustler; if there is such an animal as that, it’s new to me. His thing is to bet other performers that he can top them, betting a huge sum of money over the usual $100 first-place prize. There is also a trip to Omaha for the winner, where the competition is national and the prize money is significantly higher at $5,000; but, considering the way money has been thrown around in contests with less skill than this one, this is still a very low figure as a payoff. This hustling bit brought back memories of Paul Newman and Jackie Gleason as pool sharks in the “The Hustler,” or more recently Matt Damon as a card hustler in the “Rounders.” The hustle is more than what the money can bring them, therefore the stakes aren’t as important as what the rush brings to their ego.

When father and daughter bond in Vegas, he has no choice but to take her to Omaha where he sees that she can also belt out a tune karaoke style. She does a marvelous rendition of “Bette Davis Eyes.” But their story was rather tame, as there was nothing touching about their relationship and nothing revealed that wasn’t expected. It played as if something was left out, but that it wasn’t important to find out what that was. Yet their chemistry was good together, making their story the most watchable one.

The story that seemed the most forced was the one with the cabbie and the whore on the run. The whore turns out to be like all the other karaoke performers, needing someone else’s tender love to make her world a warmer place. This vignette took its dramatics too seriously and explained their obvious emergency relationship in too fine a matter for how absurd it all seemed.

I must applaud the film for not emphasizing the competition at the contest as so many recent commercial films on this subject have. That it doesn’t always come together as a fluid film, is pushed aside by how zany and entertaining it was. There was lots of energy released. I have a good feeling about this film and think it will stay around as a cult favorite and grow in status over the years.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”