A waitress and a taxi driver, an estranged father and daughter and a runaway convict and salesman all hook up and converge on Omaha, Nebraska, for the $5, 000 Grand Prize Karaoke Contest. All not only have various reasons for wanting to win, but have a lot of emotional baggage to unload on the way, too.
Bruce Paltrow - best known for directing break-out TV series St. Elsewhere - had to call on his more famous Oscar-winning daughter when he wanted this long-cherished project to get the magic green-light from the Hollywood big-wigs. The idea had been languishing in development for some time, and it's not hard to see why. Who wants to see a karaoke version of Short Cuts (1993) - which is clearly what this aspires to be? Come to that, who wants to see karaoke anyway?
Clearly the novelty of seeing Gwyneth sing was enough to convince the execs at Disney that they were on to a winner, but the film that was delivered was quite a different kettle of fish. Complaints were made about it being too violent, and Disney decided to pass on distributing it, as originally planned, in the spring - and altogether in some territories. Cuts were made - they're pretty obvious - to reduce the certificate, and Duets finally premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, where it was, despite all the above, well received.
Yet it opens badly, with Huey Lewis - yes, Back To The Future (1985) songster Huey Lewis - as a karaoke hustler, going about his business in some low down song joint. To compare his acting to a plank would be more than generous. Variously we're introducing to Vegas Showgirl Paltrow (would she have been so sickly sweet if daddy wasn't at the helm?), hooker-cum-waitress Bello, pretty boy cab driver Speedman, salesman-on-the-edge Giamatti and con-on-the-run Braugher. But it's this latter pairing that just about makes the film worth watching; they give their characters a grit and depth that Duets so badly needs.
They also sing like angels - and their rendition of Try A Little Tenderness knocks Paltrow's adequate versions of Betty Davis Eyes and Cruisin' into a cocked hat.
The fuss may be about Gwyneth's singing but the stars of the movie Braugher and Giamatti outclass all the talent here and lift the film towards a higher star rating than it would otherwise deserve.