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In 10 Words or LessOddly dark ensemble road trip movie about karaoke
Reviewer's Bias*Loves: Ensemble films
Likes: karaoke, Huey Lewis, Andre Braugher, Paul Giamatti
Hates: bad endings
The MovieUnlike certain sitting government officials, yours truly doesn't like to speak ill of the dead, so please forgive if this review isn't quite as overtly negative as Duets may deserve. As the last feature film directed by Bruce Paltrow--and his only chance to work with his daughter Gwyneth Paltrow--before his untimely passing in 2002, Duets gets a bit of a pass as a film that the director--in the midst of battling throat cancer--pushed to be completed before it was too late. While it may be easy to overlook its sins as a result, it is not an easy film to watch.
The film centers around Ricky (Huey Lewis), a karaoke hustler who wins sucker's bets by looking like a schlub, but singing like the star we know as the lead singer of Huey Lewis and the News. When he finds out his ex has died, he visits to pay respects, and runs into Liv (Paltrow) the daughter he left behind long ago. Stuck in arrested development, she quickly attaches herself to her long-lost daddy, and thanks to the threats of her grandmother (Angie Dickinson), she hits the road with Ricky, as he chases a big $5,000 karaoke payday in Omaha.
Ricky and Liv aren't the only duo making their way to Omaha and the karaoke championships. Todd (Paul Giamatti), a stressed-out, disrespected salesman at the end of his rope, picks up fresh-out-of-prison Reggie (Andre Braugher), setting them on a chaotic path, as Todd spirals out of control and Reggie tries to keep him in check. Meanwhile, Billy (Scott Speedman)--right off finding out his wife is cheating with his business partner--runs into Suzi (Maria Bello), a karaoke competitor willing to do whatever it takes to get what she wants, putting her at odds with the more innocent Billy. As you'd expect, the six characters all arrive in Omaha with the goal of winning the prize, but things don't go quite as hoped.
There's not a lot to the plot that stands out, as the pairs repeat their activities, particularly Todd and Reggie, as Todd gets increasingly manic (and obnoxious) and Reggie attempts to get him back on track. You know pretty much what to expect as the film winds its way to the finale, until things go completely off the rails and the film doesn't have time to course correct, resulting in a disappointing ending. It's unfortunate, because Lewis is a likable rogue and Speedman isn't a bad romantic lead (though he's stuck in the least interesting pairing--no matter how attractive Bello may be.) The problem is, the film's stakes are too low to power the drama, and the seriously off-balance tone of the film doesn't help either, as the movie's darker moments clash with the lighter portions.
Considering the film is about karaoke, singing is a pretty large part of the movie, and for the most part the numbers are enjoyable. Obviously, Lewis is outstanding in his numbers, and Paltrow is excellent as well, with their featured duet, covering Smokey Robinson's "Cruisin'", being the film's highlight. Meanwhile, Giamatti is surprisingly capable as a singer, though Braugher is dubbed by a professional singer. Only Bello disappoints as a performer, with her take on Bonnie Raitt's fantastic "I Can't Make You Love Me" coming off as lifeless and dull. Unfortunately, the music can't carry the film (even with an early-career appearance by Michael Buble, and an early turn by Maya Rudolph, who also served as a music supervisor.)
The DiscDuets arrives on one Blu-ray disc, which is packed in a standard keepcase. The film's poster art is on the front and on the disc's static menu with options to watch the film, select scenes, check out the extras and adjust the set-up. Audio options include DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and 2.0 tracks, while subtitles are available in English.
The QualityThere's no reference to a new master on the box, so the 1.85:1, 1080p, AVC-encoded transfer on this disc looks to be from an older master, and it lacks some of the color punch seen in Kino's fresher transfers, and the level of fine detail isn't as consistently high as you'd hope from a film from the 2000s. There's a nice layer of grain to the image that makes for a very cinematic look, but the contrast isn't deep enough, resulting in an overall dim presentation. On the plus side, the image is pretty much free of any obvious dirt or damage, nor any digital distractions.
The audio is presented with a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track, which delivers the film's sound in solid shape, with dialogue mostly center-focused and a touch low, while the surrounds boost the music and create the feel of the crowd scenes, with the side and rear speakers delivering the atmosphere of the karaoke bars and any action scenes. The low-end has a few opportunities to make its presence felt, but for the most part it's not a key element of the mix.
The ExtrasA commentary with Bruce Paltrow and producer Kevin Jones is carried over from the original DVD, and it's an excellent track, as Paltrow has plenty of info to share about the movie, from technical details about the shoot to production stories and discussion of the script. Just hearing about what you need in a steadicam operator tells you that Paltrow is a thoughtful filmmaker. It's really a bummer that such a solid track accompanies a far less interesting film. If there's anything about this disc that makes it worth checking out, it's this commentary.
There's more from Paltrow in the 8:15 "Conversations with Bruce Paltrow", in which the director talks about his style of directing, his cancer diagnosis, the production schedule, adjustments made for the studios considering the film and what it's like to work with actors. Like the commentary, this interview--backed by set footage--is an enjoyable listen.
A multi-angle music video for "Cruisin'" (3:15) puts a demo version of the song over footage of Lewis and Paltrow in the studio, behind the scenes footage from the set and the final filmed version. The multi-angle feature isn't used too often, but this is a decent way to take advantage of it.
Three deleted scenes, running a total of 5:31, are available to check out in a reel. All three feature Reggie, and they dramatically change his character, which made their removal a smart decision.
A trailer for Duets is accompanied by previews for A Pyromaniac's Love Story, The Favor and Untamed Heart.
The Bottom LineOn the surface, Duets looks like the kind of film that should have at least cult appeal, with a solid cast, a quirky concept, solid music and some likeable characters, but it just doesn't come together, resulting in a movie that is a difficult watch thanks to repetitive plot beats, low stakes and a lack of interesting moments. Kino has brought the film to Blu-ray in decent shape, and brings back all the bonus content from the original DVD, making it a solid package for a film that doesn't really deserve it. Only die-hard fans of the cast will want to check this one out, though the commentary is worth your time.
Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.Follow him on Twitter
*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.