When you consider how awful Duets sounds in summary, it's something of a miracle that it isn't all that bad. The combination of Gwyneth Paltrow, Huey Lewis and karaoke was enough to get me reaching for the medication, but the strength of the film is that it gets past these three hurdles with a fair amount of skill, thanks mostly to two excellent performances. Even so, the return of Gwyneth's father, Bruce Paltrow, to directing after eighteen years isn't exactly occasion to hang the garland high and kill the fatted calf.
Shamelessly referencing a lot of much better films, several of them by Robert Altman, the narrative tracks six characters as they head towards the Grand Prix Karaoke Competition in Omaha with its prize money of $5000. This in itself is actually quite a nice touch; we're not talking about life changing wads of cash here, just enough for a bit of self-respect. Five of the characters use small barroom karaoke competitions to break out of their mundane lives, the other just tags along for the ride. The six people break, conveniently, into three pairs. First, and least interestingly, we have Gwyneth Paltrow's showgirl and Huey Lewis's karaoke hustler who turn out to be father and daughter. Then there are waitress Maria Bello and cab-driver Scott Speedman, who argue tediously and then become best friends. Finally, saving the film, are Andre Braugher and Paul Giamatti as an ex-con and a salesman. These two are not only the most interesting actors in the film, they also have the best scene as they duet on a storming version of "Try A Little Tenderness". The relationship between these two is hackneyed but halfway believable, mostly because they are such compelling presences. Giamatti has been an entertaining supporting actor for some time, notably as Pig Vomit in Private Parts, and it's nice to see him get a decent sized role. Braugher has been wasted in films for years, despite his riveting work in the TV series Homicide and his work here is typically superb. Both actors deserved the Oscar nomination with, bafflingly, went to Paltrow for her mediocre work here.
Gwyneth is relatively subdued, for a mercy, but she doesn't exactly set the screen alight. She's not helped much by having to share her scenes with Huey Lewis. He's too obviously a pop star trying to look like an amateur singer and she's evidently an actress trying to look like a showgirl. Their singing is pleasant enough but the big scene where they duet on Smokey Robinson's "Cruisin" is somewhat wasted. There is too much singing anyway as you might expect but did it have to be so damn bland ? Giamatti stands out because he puts a bit of passion into his singing and makes it believable. The rest of the cast are pleasant enough but forgettable; kudos, however, to whoever cast Angie Dickinson in the role of Paltrow's grandmother. She looks fantastic ! When is she going to get another decent part ?
The script is generally banal, especially in its attempts to turn karaoke as a metaphor for American life, but there are one or two nice lines. The problem is that Bruce Paltrow isn't a slick enough director to juggle three plotlines simultaneously without unbalancing the film. The result is that while we care about one of the three couples, we don't give a damn about the others. Jerry Greenberg's editing is sharp and paces the film more carefully than the slack direction deserves. Bizarrely, however, the emotional peak of the film comes halfway through with the duet between Giamatti and Braugher, leaving the end of the film something of an afterthought - not to mention ridiculously melodramatic.
I've seen reviews calling this the "worst movie of the year", which is idiotic. It's not all that good but it's got one or two good scenes, a couple of great turns from underrated actors and steers away, for the most part, from over-sentimentality. Anyone who likes lightweight romantic comedy will probably find this worth a try.
The region 1 disc had several extras including a commentary. The R2 junks these in favour of some brief interviews and the trailer. The transfer itself is excellent however.
The picture quality is very good indeed. The film is presented in an anamorphic 1.85:1 version and features excellent detail, rich colours and pleasing contrast. The sometimes dark interiors come across very well and there is little grain and no obvious artifacting. Sometimes the film has a slightly bland appearance, but this is a fault of the original cinematography which is occasionally a little flat.
The soundtrack is equally pleasing. Although subtle for the most part, the surround comes into its own in the karaoke bar scenes which are very striking. Dialogue is naturally placed and very clear and there are some effective moments of ambient sound. The songs sound crisp and clear throughout, although that's not always a good thing in this case. Hearing Huey Lewis murder Joe Cocker's "Feelin' Alright" is a capital crime, and that's just the opening five minutes. Believe me, it gets worse. Maria Bello, in particular, does things with her voice which shouldn't be allowed, even in a free country.
The only extras are the theatrical trailer and some brief interview snippets with the cast and crew. Nothing of great interest here. The menus are static with backing music and there are 20 chapter stops.
Duets is hardly a must-see but it's not as bad as has been suggested. Somewhat to my surprise, after the first half hour or so, I quite enjoyed it and it passed a couple of hours without too much pain. The DVD looks and sounds fine but is otherwise nothing special.
Last updated: 16/06/2018 09:01:36