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Off-key "Duets'

Adding Oscar and Emmy winners can't bring harmony to this look at karaoke.

Duets, in some alternate universe, might be appreciated for the depth of its kitsch, its willingness to boldly go where no man (or woman), or at least none that I'll admit to knowing, has ever wanted to go before _ the low-stakes, high-melodrama world of karaoke.

"It's a way of life," one participant says about the subculture, a network of bars, regular patrons, contests and "menus" of instrumental versions of pop, rock and country hits, canned background music for wannabe singing stars.

In this reality, the laborious comedy-drama from veteran television and film director Bruce Paltrow (A Little Sex, St. Elsewhere) and screenwriter John Byrum (The Razor's Edge, Scandalous) is flawed by numerous "errors in judgment," to borrow a quote dear to philosophical ex-con Reggie Kane (Andre Braugher).

The performances, by an oddly assembled cast including a fading rock star (Huey Lewis) and a hot Oscar winner (Gwyneth Paltrow), are markedly uneven. Lewis and Paltrow, as karaoke hustler Ricky Dean and his long-estranged daughter Liv, a Las Vegas showgirl, might have accidentally met on the Duets set while working on other movies. The tone of their respective work is seriously mismatched.

Maybe it's Lewis' fault. He did okay with small roles in Sphere and Short Cuts and an appearance in Back to the Future, but he's no actor.

How did Paltrow wind up in this marginal movie? Blame her dad.

The chemistry between an oversexed waitress played by Maria Bello (Coyote Ugly) and a sad-sack, idealistic cabdriver (Scott Speedman) is similarly off key.

Paul Giamatti (Saving Private Ryan), as harried businessman Todd Woods and Braugher (television's Homicide: Life on the Streets) fare a little better, but not by much. Their characters warm up to one another in a manner that's at least a little bit believable, as they roar recklessly down America's highways, seeking the meaning of life, a good time and/or a little trouble.

Kane and Woods figure in some of the film's funniest scenes, including several conversations centering on the parallels between their lives _ the former has spent years in cells; the latter in sales, etc. Several running jokes, though, including Woods' repeated failure to cash in on the free motel nights offered in compensation for his 800,000 frequent-flyer miles, fall flat.

And the herky-jerky narrative, intended to be quirky, more often than not is predictable, and on more than one occasion downright annoying. Hints about the big finale, a $5,000 karaoke contest in Omaha, are dropped near the start of the film.

Thus, for some viewers, it may be terribly difficult to avoid keeping one eye on the clock and counting the minutes until that climax, one that comes off as oddly truncated when it finally arrives.

It's an achievement, of sorts, that so many of the characters' singing voices are provided by the actors: We hear Lewis croon Feeling Alright and Lonely Teardrops, and he joins Paltrow for Cruisin'; Paltrow takes on Bette Davis Eyes; Bello admirably tackles I Can't Make You Love Me and Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This); Giamatti does Hello, It's Me and (with the angelic Arnold McCuller singing Braugher's part) Try a Little Tenderness. Nice auditions.



Grade: C

Director: Bruce Paltrow

Cast: Maria Bello, Andre Braugher, Paul Giamatti, Huey Lewis, Gwyneth Paltrow and Scott Speedman

Screenplay: John Byrum

Rating: R; nudity, profanity

Running time: 112 minutes