As is the case with most things in life, timing is everything when it comes to the scheduling of movies. For example, the 1979 release of "The China Syndrome" benefited from its temporal proximity to the nuclear mishap at Three Mile Island that same year. Likewise, it didn't hurt that the 1998 version of "The Man in the Iron Mask" with Leonardo DiCaprio followed the release of "Titanic" by only a few months.
Of course, many filmmakers and studios try to capitalize on whatever the hot trend of any particular moment may be, with some being successful (the first Pokémon film) and others not so (the second Pokémon film, all of those Lambada movies of the early '90s). Yes, getting the timing right is often essential for box office success, and as the Beach Boys sang, "Catch a wave and you're sitting on top of the world."
What they didn't sing was "Miss that wave and you'll be thrashed in the surf like fish food." While that might not be a great lyric, it more than adequately describes "Duets," a Karaoke contest film that's clearly missed that pastime's spotlight in the public eye. Reportedly in the making for the past five years - for reasons unknown - the film and its story feel at least that old. As a result, many viewers may end up thinking they're watching a re-release of a film they missed the first time around when it was originally released in the early to mid 1990s.
Now, some may argue that Karaoke - an activity where aspiring crooners and lounge lizards sing the lyrics to popular songs by following the words on a video screen - is still hot in various parts of the country and that such Karaoke contests do exist. While that may be true, it's clearly fallen off the average moviegoer's radarscope, much like Pacman, the Rubik's Cube and the Macarena (all of which probably still have their ardent fans and supporters, but thankfully are no longer considered as potential movie fodder).
Bad timing and the silly notion of Karaoke being therapeutic aside, the film could still be good as long as a decent and interesting story, good performances and able direction are there to support it. Unfortunately, that's not the case here.
As written by producer John Byrum ("Heart Beat," "The Razor's Edge") and directed by Bruce Paltrow ("A Little Sex," and writer/director for TV's "St. Elsewhere"), the film is a cross between a road movie and the mismatched buddy flick as the three twosomes stereotypically learn something about themselves and each other as they travel across the country to a "big" Karaoke championship. The problem is, little of it's interesting and rarely do the three distinct stories feel as if they're in the same film, notwithstanding the Karaoke connection.
The one story that holds some interest - mainly due to the disparate characters and the presence and performance of one of its cast members - is the one featuring Andre Braugher ("City of Angels," TV's "Homicide: Life on the Street") and Paul Giamatti ("Man on the Moon," "Private Parts") as the most mismatched pairing of the six major characters.
While Giamatti is occasionally amusing but eventually becomes irksome doing his version of Jon Lovitz playing Michael Douglas in "Falling Down" (a middle-aged man suffering a midlife crisis and disillusionment with society and its trappings), Braugher steals the show. Although he appears as if he could sleepwalk through the role as it's written, the talented actor brings a great deal of depth and dignity to his escaped convict character and all eyes are on him whenever he's on the screen.
The least satisfying and/or developed of the stories features Scott Speedman (the TV show "Felicity") and Maria Bello ("Coyote Ugly," "Payback") as a jilted cabbie and an aspiring, brazen singer who will do anything to get to Los Angeles. Neither their characters nor the individual or collective story involving them is interesting or engaging, resulting in a third of the movie we simply don't care about.
The story with the most potential that then throws it all away involves Gwyneth Paltrow ("The Talented Mr. Ripley," "Shakespeare in Love") and pop singer turned actor Huey Lewis ("Back to the Future," "Short Cuts") as a Vegas showgirl and a Karaoke hustler who learn, for the first time, that they're really daughter and father. While that could have provided for some interesting dramatic conflict and heartfelt moments, all of it - the setup, execution, related dialogue and Paltrow's performance - feels stiff and contrived.
What the film does have going for it are the singing moments, and although Paltrow the director (and Gwyneth's father) doesn't capture the queasy, gnawing gut feeling of performing in front of strangers, the numbers themselves are rather entertaining. While one knows by default that Lewis can sing, Gwyneth and Paul Giamatti actually sound rather good with the former belting out "Betty Davis Eyes" and the latter doing a rendition of "Try a Little Tenderness" with Braugher (who turns out was accompanied/enhanced by the work of a professional singer, but the effect is transparent).
What's not transparent is how lackluster and disjointed the film really is, as those singing moments alone can't carry the picture. Filled with some bad vocal dubbing, rough editing and less than stellar writing and direction, it's doubtful many critics or moviegoers will be singing praises for this film. Feeling old despite being new, and containing a less than engaging story that few will care about, "Duets" rates as just a 3 out of 10.