WHILE WATCHING Bruce Paltrow's awful new movie about karaoke contests starring his Academy Award-winning daughter Gwyneth, my companion and I alternately doubled over with suppressed guffaws and exhaled through our noses in snorts of disbelief. We must have made too much noise; a rival critic in the next row pointed his pen light at us and hissed menacingly, "Shut the fuck up!"
Pardon us—was this the screening of Schindler's List?
directed by Bruce Paltrow with Huey Lewis, Gwyneth Paltrow, Andr頂raugher, and Maria Bello opens September 15 at Metro and Pacific Place
Sure, my companion's whispered comments about movies-of-the-week could be overheard, but they were right on target. Here, tied up with a karaoke ribbon, are not one but three movie-of-the-week reject stories. A trio of unlikely pairs meets up through unlikely circumstances: cute, scruffy cabbie and wanna-be-a-star waitress, black escaped convict and white traveling salesman, ditsy but sunshine-sweet Vegas showgirl (Paltrow) and her long-lost hustler/singer daddy ('80s throwback Huey Lewis). "Karao-karate?" Huey asks, feigning ignorance before taking the stage and snatching prize money from a local champion. The three pairs—duets!--seek salvation by singing other people's songs, then finally converge in Omaha for a big-money contest.
Unless you're taking the campy, over-the-top Strictly Ballroom approach, which Duets assiduously avoids, karaoke's an undeserving and smarmy subculture. It reeks of honky-tonk bars and strip-mall hotels, tired playlists and inappropriate sequins. The movie bluntly states that karaoke can provide its beleaguered characters with a kind of transcendence from their everyday shackles—what's wrong with alcohol and drugs?—without seriously developing that theme as in Dennis Potter's The Singing Detective.
It hit me early on, in Gwyneth's first scene, where—wearing a cow-spotted miniskirt, white leggings, and platform sandals—she squeals, "I'm so excited I have to pee," that Duets is one of the worst movies I have ever seen.
My companion—a Seattle Weekly music critic—and I had but two requirements of Duets: We wanted kitsch, lots of it, and to see if ubiquitous "It" girl Gwyneth could carry a tune. Besides painful renditions of bland hits like "Feeling Alright" (Huey ain't no Joe Cocker, folks), "Hit Me With Your Best Shot," and "What I Like About You," there's nary a morsel of kitsch to be found. Instead, Duets is a wide-eyed, too-earnest piece of dreck that begs for fewer characters and a script that can laugh at itself. Yet when Gwyneth sings Smokey Robinson's "Cruisin'" with Huey, her voice is surprisingly good. (She's already getting airplay. Her debut record should follow.) It's just that the song's sexual insinuations turn their father-daughter bond into something entirely creepy. We just can't fathom why her real father didn't put a stop to it. All of it.