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Too many plots, too little development make flat 'Duets'

Saturday, October 14, 2000

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Who knew there was a karaoke circuit in this country? Who wanted to know?


Rating: R for language, some sexuality and brief nudity.

Starring: Gwyneth Paltrow, Paul Giamatti, Andre Braugher.

Director: Bruce Paltrow.

Critic's call: 1 1/2 stars


The world of karaoke provides the backdrop for "Duets," a so-called road trip comedy that plays like a half-dozen miniature movies, most of which are unsatisfying and ill-conceived. Rising above the pack is the duet of Paul Giamatti as a salesman who has soured on life and family and Andre Braugher as an ex-convict with a sweet voice.

"Duets" very slowly introduces a range of characters and then spends the movie getting them to Omaha, Neb., where the karaoke contest to end all karaoke contests will be held -- with a $5,000 grand prize. Yes, $5,000.

The characters are: a hustler played by Huey Lewis; the daughter (Gwyneth Paltrow) he abandoned and who seems either extremely naive or slightly slow-witted; a cab driver (Scott Speedman) who discovers his girlfriend is cheating on him; a tough talker (Mario Bello) who is happy to trade sexual favors for hotel rooms or car paint jobs; a salesman (Giamatti) who has amassed 800,000 frequent-flier miles but can never use them; and an ex-convict (Braugher) whose only talents are singing and using a gun.

When a trucker asks the one-time prisoner the nature of his offense, he replies: "an error in judgment." This movie, written by John Byrum and directed by Bruce Paltrow (Gwyneth's dad, one of the "St. Elsewhere" producers), makes many errors in judgment.

It clogs the screen with too many people. It takes forever to introduce everyone, even longer to get them to the same city. It takes the two lost souls we do care about -- Giamatti and Braugher -- and puts them at the wrong end of a crime scene. Granting one the ultimate redemption makes for a shocking, out-of-place moment.

The Oscar winner from "Shakespeare in Love" actually has a rather small role here. It does require Paltrow to sing, and she holds her own against Lewis.

Giamatti, a salesman who can pimp a theme park no matter what the environmental cost, gets all the best lines in the movie. He turns into a wild-eyed lunatic, raving against the strip-malling of America, wearing his tie around his waist, teaching his new pal how to drive.

But watching "Duets," I was reminded of a child trying to assemble a puzzle. He's trying to hammer pieces into place, but they don't really fit. They bulge and bend and don't make for a pretty picture.

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