Upon first glance people might be skeptical of a movie that centers around something generally seen as foolish, such as karaoke. However, I can concede that there are people out there like the ones in this movie who do take it seriously and compete in contests, because I have been one of those people. Having said that, "Duets" is a dull, surreal, aimless disaster for reasons that have little to do with karaoke.
The movie tries to do a connect-the-subplots approach with a menagerie of mismatched characters brought together by chance to a karaoke contest in Omaha and fails at every turn. The characters are thinly written, the pacing is glacial, the premise and character motivations are treated like an afterthought, and some of them commit acts that make it hard to sympathize with them. Having been on the karaoke circuit, I was also extremely disappointed at the lack of minorities in this picture, but then again, that's nothing new in Hollywood.
The plot, such as it is, involves six characters: Ricky(a rare appearance from Huey Lewis), a "karaoke hustler" (as a karaoke fan, even I didn't know this was a thing), Liv(Gwyneth Paltrow), his space cadet daughter, Reggie (Andre Braugher), a "noble criminal," who the movie expects you to feel sorry for despite the fact that he robs an old trucker at gunpoint in his first five minutes on screen, Todd (Paul Giamatti), a sad sack corporate shill who decides to leave his family and go on a crime spree across the country, Suzi (Maria Bello), a woman of shockingly loose morals who seems to have no clear motivation for anything she does, and a cab driver played by Scott Speedman, who is so boring that I can't remember his name and don't care to look it up. I'll admit I may have some of this wrong as I struggled to stay awake during parts.
Naturally these wildly varying plots give the movie an extremely uneven tone. One minute, you see Huey and Gwyneth trying to mend their fractured relationship, the next, Bello is offering to fellate an auto mechanic to detail her friend's car. Then we're taken to Braugher and Giamatti holding up a convenience store. This movie suffers from a severe identity crisis as it lurches toward a climax that is just utterly bonkers.
The actors, bless their hearts, give this movie a performance that is way better than it deserves. Huey Lewis does the best he can as does Maria Bello. Paul Giamatti and Andre Braugher give the best performances though it's not surprising given their storyline is the most interesting. I will say that with their fondness for waving guns around and causing destruction and mayhem everywhere they go, their scenes felt like they came from an entirely different movie. Weakest performances go to Paltrow, who plays her role like Marilyn Monroe imagined as a flower child, and Speedman, who was such a non-entity I frequently forgot he was still in the movie. It takes a special kind of dull performance to make you unsympathetic to a guy who gets two-timed by his girlfriend and his business partner but he manages. I also imagine the bad writing deserves partial credit for this.
You'll spend eighty minutes of a nearly two hour run time with these characters off in their own little worlds until they inexplicably converge at the big contest, which is where an already loopy film gets even crazier. First there's the Paltrow-Lewis duet, which would be pretty great if it weren't a father and daughter singing a love song to each other, then Giamatti must suddenly confront the wife he abandoned, then there's Braugher's final scene which has to be seen to be believed. While on stage he sees the cops coming to arrest him so he meanders through an acapella "Free Bird" before pointing a gun at them and getting shot and killed. It doesn't help that Braugher treats this scene so seriously that it just makes a ridiculous scene even more so. To top it off, we don't even learn who wins the karaoke contest and Giamatti somehow goes back to his boring life despite the fact that he would be wanted for armed robbery and destruction of property, and that he didn't seem to care how much he upset his wife.
Another positive outside of some solid performances is, of course, the singing. The singing is done well enough that I could believe that these people are contenders in a contest, even if they are a bit over-produced. The "Cruisin'" duet is the highlight of the movie despite its context, Huey Lewis hits a few solo home runs, though given his reputation as a karaoke hustler (sorry, still a ridiculous concept), it makes sense. And who knew Paul Giamatti could sing? There are still some low points, like Paltrow's lifeless rendition of "Bette Davis Eyes."
The final major criticism I have of this film is that it is rated R despite having no reason to be. It features violence, coarse language, sex scenes just to have them apparently. You could cut all this out and get a PG-13 rating and lose absolutely nothing. It's a movie about people singing in bars, it's not like it's "Rambo" or "Basic Instinct."
You might think after all the ways I have slammed this film I wouldn't recommend it but the strange thing is, I can. It's one of those movies that's so bizarre you have to see it, mainly because it's an incredibly stupid movie that thinks it's serious and deep. It's almost a shame they wasted such sincerity and conviction on such an absurd film, but it sure is fun to watch.