That's right, "the world of karaoke singing." According to this movie, there really are circles in which warbling pop songs to recorded tracks in bars isn't an occasional alcohol-induced amusement but a full-fledged lifestyle, with its own jargon, etiquette and hard-fought competition. Why this should be surprising, I can't imagine -- name any activity, and you can bet that somebody somewhere has turned it into an active, organized subculture.
Karaoke is widely sneered at in hip circles, but it's no more ridiculous, in any important way, than, say, being a movie buff. At least it's active rather than passive. The sneering seems to arise from the terror that most people feel with regard to suffering or witnessing public humiliation. Duets takes pains to demonstrate that in karaoke -- Japanese for "empty orchestra" -- it doesn't matter that much if you suck.
Early on, downtrodden corporate drone Todd Woods (Paul Giamatti) is coaxed by a pretty girl to sing "Hello It's Me" in a hotel bar, and after an unsteady start he turns the number into a strutting tour de force. He's vocally dreadful, but he performs with such relish, such delighted amazement at his own lack of inhibition, that the crowd (onscreen and off) goes nuts for him. In the background of a later scene, a drunken Japanese businessman (Tony Marr) croaks out "What I Like About You," sans any measure of melody or rhythm, and everyone ignores him. Neither man is mocked, because the point isn't vocal perfection, any more than the point of poetry slams is to create Petrarchan verse. Rather, it's to take the right to entertain back from the slickly produced professionals. The revolt against the homogenization of culture is a theme that's tough to bring off without sentimentality (and, in a big-studio movie, without disingenuousness), but it turns out to be the most touching element of Duets.
Each of the film's pairs neatly consists of one character in need of redemption and one ministering angel. Angel No. 1 is the pointedly named Liv, a guileless Vegas showgirl who meets her father for the first time at her mother's funeral and gloms onto him at once, determined to bond. The father, played by '80s pop dreamboat Huey Lewis, is a professional hustler who drifts from bar to bar breaking the ice with the question, "What do you call this, karate-oke?" before emptying wallets with killer Joe Cocker covers. Liv is played by Gwyneth Paltrow, daughter of the film's director, Bruce Paltrow, and yes, it turns out that Miss Thing can sing pretty well, too -- in her thin but dulcet voice, she does a very respectable "Bette Davis Eyes." Except for a wretched little monologue that no actress should get stuck with, in which Liv tells her old man off for rejecting her attempts to connect with him, Paltrow's facility for emotional responsiveness serves her well here. Her style blends believably with Lewis' effective, easygoing nonactor's performance -- he's the acting equivalent of an above-average karaoke singer.
Angel No. 2 is Billy (Scott Speedman), a guileless Cincinnati underachiever who drives a cab. On the rebound from an unfaithful girlfriend, he stumbles into the company of Suzi (Maria Bello), a trampy itinerant bombshell who earns her keep with sex when she doesn't win enough singing in karaoke contests. Billy started out to be a priest, and, you guessed it, he teaches Suzi to respect herself. If Duets has a dud, it's this strand.
The wild card in Duets is the strand involving the aforementioned Giamatti as the sad-sack company man Todd, who cracks one day under the strain of anonymous, generic business travel, leaves his suburban home and family "for a pack of cigarettes" and just keeps going, wandering from karaoke bar to karaoke bar, popping pills, drinking beer and driving recklessly. Along the way he picks up Angel No. 3, an armed convict named Reggie (Andre Braugher) with a glorious singing voice. The two sing a heavenly "Try a Little Tenderness" together in a redneck bar. Inseparable thereafter, they head for a big-purse karaoke contest in Omaha, where the three plotlines converge at the melodramatic climax.
Giamatti, a slight, balding man who looks like a cross between Woody Allen and Peter Lorre, is still best known as Pig Vomit in the Howard Stern movie Private Parts. He's a perfectly excellent actor with a stripped-wire intensity, and in a just world he'd be playing leads. The gifted Braugher (whose singing, alone among the principals, is partially dubbed, by Arnold McCuller) can be a frightful ham, but he's unusually restrained here, probably because he had no choice -- with Giamatti bouncing off the walls around him, it was the only option. The two are wonderfully convincing as cosmically ordained friends; in their rumpled coats, they look like a Middle American version of Beckett's Vladimir and Estragon.
A number of minor players make an impression. Marian Seldes has a small role as Billy's disappointed third-grade teacher; she puts on an Irish accent and overplays shamelessly. Angie Dickinson plays it cooler in her one scene as Liv's grandmother, nicely pulling off her big ironic line about putting down roots in Las Vegas. Several "real" karaoke-ists appear near the end, as does the rotund standup comedian John Pinette, who sings a rousing "Copacabana." Duets is no big deal, but moments like this make it go down smoothly, and Giamatti and Braugher give it a human core.