A popular approach in film making today is the multithreaded story line. Among the best of this genre is, of course, Nashville or more recently Magnolia. Duets from the pen of John Byrum try for these lofty heights but doesnt make it. Dont get me wrong, its a fun flick but it tries to be more than it can deliver. There are three many story lines set in the world of professional karaoke. The first concerns itself with a karaoke hustler Ricky Dean (Huey Lewis) that goes to his ex wifes funeral only to find he has a grown daughter Liv (Gwyneth Paltrow). The second story is a beaten down traveling sales representative Todd (Paul Giamatti) who travels so much he goes to a meeting in the wrong city. He meets up with a black ex-con Reggie (Andre Braugher) and the two form a fast and tight friendship. Lastly, there is an underachiever Billy (Scott Speedman) who winds up traveling with a slut Suzi (Maria Bello). Each tale starts off in a different part of the country. Each revolves around how karaoke changed their lives. In the multithread flick there has to be point that draws them all together. Here, there is karaoke championship in Omaha with a prize of $5000. Perhaps because I enjoyed the films mentioned above I am holding Duets to a standard that is set too high. What this story is missing is something more substantial than karaoke to hold the three story lines together. In Nashville there was Jeff Goldblum on the three-wheel motorcycle, for Magnolia there was the ever-present coincidence. Here, the film rambles from story to story. Of all the stories here the best is the two men, Reggie and Todd. There is a depth to this tale that is not accomplished by the others. There is actually real emotion presented here, characters that the audience can actually care about.
What is needed in a film of this type is a well-balanced cast of actors. While the talent presented in Duets is excellent, there is little provided to them to work with. In this particular film singing talent is also needed and surprisingly, its there. Paltrow is able to sell a song, especially in the duet she has with Lewis. Of course, Lewis shines in his vocal performances and anyone that enjoyed his career with enjoy his songs here. Bello is another that can actually sing quiet well. Unfortunately, this film also requires the portrayal of emotion. In the scenes between Paltrow and Lewis there is little chemistry. While the story is how Lewis initially rejects her as his daughter even in the end where he accepts her you cant believe they are father and daughter. Perhaps the presence of Paltrows real life father as the directed stunted her performance in this regard. Bello did well as the slut with a heart of gold. While this is a role that has been overdone in films she brings energy to it. In several cases she uses sex to barter for what she needs. This is offensive to Billy not because he is a prude but because he sees more potential in her than she can see in herself. The real gem is again Braugher and Giamatti. Two excellent actors that show that it is possible to overcome a limited script. Gimatti is a type of character that seems to have sprung from the same pressures as Michael Douglas showed in Falling Down. After one of his many road trips he comes home to a family that cares very little that he is home. There is a running gag about all his frequent flyer miles that are rejected in every place he tries to use them. In perfect counterpoint to this is Baughers character. The rough around the edges ex-con that is out to repeat the mistakes of his life of crime. They befriend each other on a road trip that would have held together as a film in itself.
Now, lets chat a bit about the direction of this film. The director is Bruce Paltrow, father of Ms Paltrow. He is not what can be considered a seasoned director. Most of his work is in the field of TV including a couple of my favorites St. Elsewhere and Homicide. This background in TV shows here. The scenes are shot in widescreen but set in such a way that matting to 4:3 will not affect the scene too much. He has a direct style also indicative of TV, nothing fancy in the lighting or background. There is a problem in how the film flows. The cuts between the story lines are static and too episodic. Some films draw you in making it difficult to stop watching. With Duets I was able to stop at almost any chapter stop returning later just because I needed to finish watching the film to write this review. Aside from the two man buddy story there is little to direct here.
The disc is excellent in quality. The video is anamorphic 1.85:1, free of defect and extremely clear. The audio for this film had to be above average and it is. The 5.1 soundtrack fills the room. The sub woofer is not often used. The rear speakers provide some realistic ambiance. There are some notable extras including a commentary by Bruce Paltrow and the producers. He is very complimentary of the actors but little is provided regarding the method used in the production or some little tidbits of backlot gossip. There is a multiangle music video featuring Lewis and Paltrow. This song actually hit the charts and is more entertaining than a lot of the film. Duets is entertaining but falls short of expectations.