Duets is about the desire for recognition, offering the audience the ability to live vicariously through its characters. It offers a glance at what almost everyone wants: an instance where you alone are the center of attention and everyone is cheering. At the heart of Duets is the lure of immediate fulfillment, where all you do is order up a serving of satisfaction and forego any preparation or long-term effort. The film follows the lives of six people, or three duets, who find their way to the $5,000 Grand Prize Karaoke Contest in Omaha, Nebraska. Each character is designed to offer you something to which you can relate, unless of course you already feel successful and are happy. Essentially, this film is speaking to the “unhappy” people that fill our streets and office buildings, mainly the people who are sick of working.
Suzi Loomis (Maria Bello) meets her partner Billy (Scott Speedman) in a bar, the type of bar frequented by alcoholics picture the bar on The Simpsons with Moe pouring your poison and you’ve got it. He has just been dumped by his girlfriend and she has just gotten off the bus from Nowhere, USA, when she walks in looking for the “kj”, an abbreviated term that I can only assume means “karaoke jockey” (the phrase initiates a spate of never-explained and annoying karaoke lingo). Suzi talks Billy into driving her to California, where she’s planning to become a “star.” Although she’s penniless, she offers to “pay her way”: her method of payment becomes clear when she explains to the attendant at the body shop that she “would be honored to suck [his] dick.” When she and Billy pull out the garage in a shiny new pink car the audience chuckled while I gagged. Slut humor has gotten just a little old on the big screen. Billy functions as the decent male role model when he refuses her sexual advances: “dumb/bad girl” meets “smart/good boy.” He teaches her that there is more to her than her orifices, except perhaps, her mouth, which she should use for singing. Ick.
Gwyneth Paltrow, Huey Lewis, Paul Giamatti, Andre Braugher, Maria Bello, Scott Speedman
Duet number two is equally as cliched, when Reggie Kane (Andre Braugher) and Todd Woods (Paul Giamatti) meet on the road. Todd is a salesman who is forever on his way to “get a pack of cigarettes” this is the excuse he has offered his wife when he walked out of their suburban dream home and into his nervous breakdown. Todd, however, is the only character with any real depth and director Bruce Paltrow takes his time in developing his character and his voice. This is apparent in Todd’s introduction, framed in a hotel room as he looks out the window onto a huge plane that seems ready to fly right into his room. Todd embodies the overworked and underappreciated middle-class person: disheveled, desperate, and perpetually hunched over. However, when he finds karaoke, he finds everything he has ever looked for recognition. But the premise that karaoke provides him so much happiness supports the argument against the film’s use of karaoke as its designated “nirvana.” Come on, it’s karaoke: am I the only one laughing? The karaoke scene is like a drug for Todd, an idea underlined by his addiction to beta-blockers, a substance used to lower his inhibitions while in “k-town.” Todd discovers Kane hitchhiking on a deserted highway while driving through the desert and they come together as an unlikely karaoke pair. Add to this the fact that Kane is a criminal on the run. He introduces Todd to the world of guns and Todd teaches Kane how to drive. Hmmm. Why is the only “criminal” in the film a black male? And why does the white guy possess the car, that is, mobility?
The final pairing, Liv (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Ricky Dean (Huey Lewis), represents the broken family made whole through karaoke. They meet at her mother’s funeral, where Liv discovers that Ricky is her long lost father. She’s a Vegas showgirl and he’s a former singer turned “karaoke hustler,” a title I find even more amusing than any other aspect of the film. Strangely, after they meet, he acts as though he wants nothing to do with his daughter, but didn’t he think she would be at her own mother’s funeral? And Liv remains childlike throughout: her mannerisms and naivete make her look like she’s about fifteen, and her occupation is just silly (Gwyneth in glitter and tassles?). There isn’t much to say about this pairing except that Paltrow does have a pretty good voice, and, frankly, they call attention to the problem of deadbeat dads and the need for better birth control methods.
Hollywood Pictures, in their press release, suggests that Duets is a film “about six individuals who throw off the binds of their pre-determined lives and strive to fulfill their dreams [where] the metaphor for this is Karaoke… the courage to stand up, sing, and be free.” Well, they’re wrong. Giamatti’s Todd says it all: “I’m just a little sick of the American Dream.” The movie treats karaoke as a viable alternative to the unhappiness that comes from the daily grind when “CEO” isn’t etched on your door. To find out that these characters (these archetypes) find true happiness in something so silly only furthers the idea that people just want to be heard and applauded, even if they have to purloin someone else’s work to do so.