The release of Duets was held up for more than a year because director Bruce Paltrow initially refused to capitulate to Disney's demands that he trim two scenes with excessive violence. While that sort of studio interference is troubling—and the film's subsequent dumping childish—the executives have a sound point: Why are pools of blood collecting in a dopey crowd-pleaser about amateur karaoke competitions? But gunplay is just part of the tonal wackiness spoiling what might have been a poignant tribute to ordinary people hungry for three minutes of stardom, like Being John Malkovich featuring "Copacabana" and "It's Raining Men." It's hard to tell whether the miscalculations originated with John Bynum's Altman-lite screenplay or Paltrow's inability to handle its wild flights of fancy. Either way, Duets is a terrible mess, albeit a surprisingly likable one, with moments on stage suggesting that a great karaoke movie is not out of the question. The title refers to three sets of quirky characters who converge on a $5,000 karaoke championship in Omaha: Huey Lewis, a karaoke hustler, reluctantly bonds with estranged daughter Gwyneth Paltrow; Maria Bello, a singer who uses sexual favors as currency, convinces hard-luck cabbie Scott Speedman to drive her across the country; and Paul Giamatti, a salesman suffering a nervous breakdown, picks up honey-voiced convict Andre Braugher. Brought to you by the good folks at Alamo Rent-A-Car, TWA, and 1-800-CALL-ATT, Duets finds a range of ways to botch every one of its pairings. Lewis and Paltrow would look ridiculous as father and daughter even if he didn't mumble through his lines and she wasn't encouraged to behave like an infant. Bello's nymphet is as contrived a character as a hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold; conversely, Giamatti and Braugher are realistic characters placed in absurdly contrived situations. The only smart move was to have the actors (except for Braugher) sing their own tunes, which gives the performances an earnest, down-to-earth quality that's often winning. When the always-excellent Giamatti loosens his tie and belts out "Hello, It's Me" like he's in the shower, his private triumph is enough to make the room, and the awful movie itself, momentarily disappear.
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