The story involves a group of losers from various parts of the country who converge on Omaha, Neb., to participate in an interstate karaoke contest with a $5,000 grand prize. Throughout the film, there's a sense of dislocation: the characters are constantly on the go, traveling by bus, plane, and taxi; they've all lost hold of exactly where and who they are. Gwyneth Paltrow portrays a girlish Las Vegas showgirl (she wears pink tights and blue barrettes) who hits the road with a karaoke hustler played by Huey Lewis (yes, that Huey Lewis, as in the News). Paul Giamatti ("Private Parts") is a salesman who has grown so detached from his family that when he returns home, his kids won't talk to him and his wife cuts him off in mid-conversation with a curt "I'm online here." Andre Braugher (NBC's "Homicide") is serial felon recently freed from the pen, still wearing his prison-issued shoes. And Maria Bello (NBC's "ER") is a con woman who's willing to exchange oral sex for an automobile paint job (she's the one giving out the former).
To give Gwyneth Paltrow credit, she's not a terrible vocalist. Pretty much all the major characters in this movie warble a song onstage at some point or another Lewis sings "Lonely Teardrops," Bello takes on "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)." Because Braugher's character is supposed to be a great vocalist, his singing is mostly overdubbed by professional belter Arnold McCuller. But Paltrow sings her own material with a sweet blandness; her voice is like a dab of grape jelly on white bread. Paltrow's rendition of "Crusin'" isn't going to replace Smokey Robinson's or D'Angelo's versions anytime this century (and we've just begun this century), but she holds your attention.
Unfortunately, when the characters in "Duets" aren't singing, they don't have much to say. That's probably because there's not much to these characters to begin with come on, a karaoke hustler? Played by Huey Lewis? Karaoke as a metaphor for finding meaning in a meaningless world? Most people would probably be better off reading the Bhagavad Gita than crooning "Bette Davis Eyes" in front of a bar full of strangers. Bruce Paltrow's direction (in the past, he served as executive producer and director of NBC's "St. Elsewhere") is as aimless as his characters' lives, and we never get caught up in the story. Maybe Paltrow & Paltrow did this movie because they wanted to work together, but in the end, "Duets" is like karaoke itself: It may be a blast to participate in, but listening and watching it can be a bore.