Picks and Pans Review: Duets

updated 09/25/2000 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/25/2000 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Gwyneth Paltrow, Huey Lewis, Maria Bello, Paul Giamatti, Andre Braugher

After proving in Emma and Shakespeare in Love that she can act with the best of 'em, Paltrow demonstrates in Duets that she can sing too. Her voice is pleasant and her phrasing distinctive, but it's not as if hers is such a golden instrument that Nina Simone or k.d. lang need consider retiring.

And that, dear readers, is the end of the complimentary portion of this review. Duets, directed by Bruce Paltrow, the actress's father, is an exceedingly slight ensemble drama about characters who are competing in singing contests at local karaoke bars, hoping to go on to a national warble-off in Omaha that features a $5,000 prize. Along the way the contestants' paths cross and each discovers truths about what's missing in his or her life. Karaoke, of course, is a metaphor for being brave enough to stand up and let loose, but just how much courage does it really take to get up in front of a bunch of drunks and sing schmaltzy pop songs?

What makes it all even more pointless is that four of the six major characters have pipes to be proud of, which takes all the fun away. Those who can sing include Ricky (Lewis), a professional crooner who makes his living hustling bets at karaoke bars; Liv (Paltrow), the daughter he abandoned as a child; Suzi (Bello), a showbiz hopeful who grants sexual favors to get what she needs; and Reggie (Braugher), an escaped convict. There's also Todd (Giamatti), a traveling salesman in the throes of a meltdown, who sings poorly; and Billy (Scott Speedman), a cabdriver ferrying Suzi cross-country, who doesn't sing at all.

Though adequately acted, most of the characters are written so sketchily that their emotional epiphanies barely register. Conversely, Giamatti's unhinged businessman has way too many scenes in which he tiresomely moans about escaping the American Dream. If Giamatti had a few more musical numbers, Duets might be mistaken for a musical version of Death of a Salesman. Sing, Willy, sing. (R)

Bottom Line: Goes flat

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