I knew I was going to enjoy Duets roughly ten minutes in.  We see the always-fantastic Paul Giamatti traveling for work, ending up in the wrong city, and coming home to a family who barely acknowledges his return.  Reaching his breaking point, he snaps, somehow finding his way to up at a karaoke bar in a hotel.  Not having heard of such a thing, he ends up on stage, and after a stumble on the first try, nails “Hello, It’s Me”.  A put-upon Paul Giamatti going crazy and belting out Todd Rundgren?  I don’t know how the producers of the movie got into my head, stole the idea, and went back in time, but bravo, good sirs, bravo.

Duets is a classic ensemble flick.  Paul Giamatti shares a storyline with Andre Braugher, where the former, as mentioned, has gone berserk, developing an obsession with karaoke, and the latter is a mysterious man on the lam, whose heart may or may not be in the right place.  A second storyline focuses on Maria Bello and Scott Speedman.  Bello is a hustler, using her body to get what she wants, and Speedman is your classic white knight character.  Also, I think he kinda looks like me, so that’s creepy.  The final storyline has Huey Lewis (!) as a professional karaoke hustler (!) finding out Gwenyth Paltrow is his daughter and doing his best to not accept it.  The stories all come together, naturally, at the Omaha karaoke finals ($5,000 grand prize).

Of course, the key to a movie about karaoke is the songs.  I believe Andre Braugher is the only member of the cast not to do his own singing.  His singing voice is performed by Arnold McCuller, who does a haunting version of Free Bird in the film.  Huey Lewis’ songs are obviously pretty rocking, and I must say, I was pleasantly surprised by his acting (granting, of course, it would be hard to write a part more suited to him).  Maria Bello’s version of the sadly beautiful “I Can’t Make You Love Me” (link goes to a live Bonnie Raitt performance) was rather moving.  And Gwyneth Paltrow has the breathy Olivia Newton-John voice, which I like, but some might not.  Michael Buble shows up at the finals (not as MIchael Buble) to sing a song in the competition, for whatever that’s worth.

In John Byrum’s script, the Giamatti/Braugher storyline is the best, with nuanced, meaningful characters, and an interesting arc, that’s both dark and uplifting.  I haven’t seen most of the movies in the supporting actor race for movies released in 2000, but there’s a good shot I’d advocate Giamatti to get a nom here.  The other two were a bit more lacking.  Speedman and Bello’s characters are generally annoying and kind of cookie cutter.  I could see cutting their storyline, but more likely I’d give them a little more depth, and especially more definition, as now they can’t really be described as anything.  The third storyline was decent.  I thought Paltrow was great, and I would have love to see her character used a little bit more.  You might remember the Lewis/Paltrow duet “Crusin'” from the movie:

For those who find this stuff interesting, the movie was directed by Gwyneth’s dad Bruce.  He was college buddies with Richard Rudolph, who was music supervisor on the film and produced some of the tracks on the soundtrack.  He’s also the father of Maya Rudolph, who appears in the movie as the karaoke competition hostess in Omaha, and sings one song on the soundtrack.

Four Stars