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Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2001
Living on songs and a prayer
By KAORI SHOJI
First off, I would like to state, here and now for the record, that it's "kara-okay," not "karri-okie." OK?
Having gotten that off my chest, I can comfortably write about "Duets," the movie under review, which is all about the kind of people who grab a microphone and never let go (and refer to the process as karri-okie). Directed by Bruce Paltrow (Gwyneth's dad), and starring his daughter, "Duets" brings to the screen the healing powers of singing one's heart out for three minutes in front of an audience chugging beer, in places like Omaha or Oklahoma City. Karaoke was the tacky word for tacky just 10 years ago and now look at its global solace and entertainment value, hah!
There is, however, a huge difference between the karaoke as we the Japanese know it and the karaoke depicted in this story. It's not about being crammed into an airless little booth and having to be polite to the section manager who will insist on singing "Ginza no Koi no Monogatari" yet again (please, don't ask). It's not about being ignored by everyone because they're too busy flipping through the book to decide on their own numbers.
"Duets" shows us the world of American karaoke, where there are cash-prize contests in every state to which karaoke-lovers will drive, hitch or crawl to participate. The love of the music, combined with the three-minute rush under the spotlight -- this is what spurs them on. Paltrow maintains a loving gaze on all this throughout, and the result is a small and pleasurable movie, as predictable as an afternoon visit with grandma.
Accordingly, there are no major plot twists or fancy camera-work -- this work relies on just two things: the choice of songs and the casting. Like Huey Lewis strutting his stuff (and it's not "Hip to Be Square"), Gwyneth doing "Bette Davis Eyes," or Maria Bello's rendition of "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)." Of course they're all mean with the microphone, especially Gwyneth who, if she chose to quit acting, will no doubt be swamped with lounge act offers from every Ramada in the United States.
As the title implies, the cast pairs off into couples, and the film is composed of vignettes of three of them. Liv (Paltrow) is a third-generation Las Vegas showgirl whose mom just died. At the funeral, her dad, whom she had never seen, arrives to pay his respects. Ricky (Lewis) is a scumbag who ditched Liv's mother after she got pregnant -- now he crashes karaoke contests from coast to coast and lives on the proceeds.
Liv is sweet and angelic and decides to bond with her long-lost father immediately. Ricky is reluctant and dying to get away, but she tags along and even helps him out. Pretty soon, Ricky discovers that it's wonderful to have someone like her around, and besides, she can sing.
Todd (Paul Giametti) is a traveling salesman who has racked up 800,000 frequent-flier miles, but his home life in suburbia has disintegrated. Waking up to the realization that he is unappreciated and unhappy, he takes off. At a karaoke bar, he learns for the first time the adrenaline high of singing, and goes on the contest circuit.
On the way, he hooks up with escaped convict Reggie (Andre Braugher), who is the possessor of a gun, a dark past and an eerie calm. But boy can he sing. The pair are wonderful together on stage, and Todd begins to feel that this is the life he had been missing all his life.
Billy (Scott Speedman) has just found out that his wife is sleeping with his business partner (they own half shares of one cab). Crushed, he allows himself to be spirited away by a mysterious good-time girl named Susie (Maria Bello). She promises that if he takes her to California, she will be "extra nice and sweet the whole entire way," but Billy is too depressed to take advantage of her offer. He just drives.
In the meantime, she succeeds in getting him a snazzy paint job on his cab and executive suites in hotels, all on the strength of her sassy charm. Susie doesn't give a damn about anything except singing -- she reserves whatever positive and unsullied traits she has for her brief time on a karaoke stage. Once he sees her in action, Billy finds himself drawn both to her music and lifestyle.
Like an after-hours get together, "Duets" does not demand very much out of you, just the inclination to relax and laugh a little. There's an underlying innocence that charges this work: reassuring, but at the same time, stirring up regrets for things lost. In this way, "Duets" could heal, but it could also sadden you.