Karaoke kulture

Duets hits a sour note

Opens Sept. 15

Before taking an ax to a rival, American Psycho's Christian Bale offered a brilliantly banal tribute to Huey Lewis' "Hip to be Square." And for an instant, that pushy Top 40 hit and the former frontman of the News actually became hip, capturing some cachet from the dark satire of '80s materialism. But Huey Lewis' presence as one of the leads of Duets quickly erases the good will of American Psycho. The new film depicts Lewis as a "karaoke hustler," offering the dubious entertainment value of the blocky, blokey performer belting out "Lonely Teardrops" and Joe Cocker's "Feelin' All Right."

Karaoke is one of those phenomena that's simultaneously hip and square, blurring the distinction between the fun of participating and the camp value of amateurs accompanying overcooked pop hits. Karaoke can be an easy target for ridicule, but the surprising thing about Duets is that irony is nearly nonexistent. It shows the occasional fat guy singing "Copacabana" and arrhythmic white girls warbling, "It's raining men." Otherwise, Duets dares to take karaoke seriously but fails to follow through.

Duets follows three mismatched couples (hence the title) whose separate road trips have the common thread of karaoke bars, all culminating at a "super-karaoke" contest in Omaha with a $5,000 purse. Lewis' hustle is to hit "k-bars" offering cash prizes and buddy up to the favored winner. Coming across as a rube, he claims no prior knowledge of "karate-oke" but makes a bet that he can win the singing contest and invariably does.

The film purports to pull back the curtain on "karaoke kulture," but though we're walked through some of the rules and overhear a little slang, Duets focuses on its relationships, all but abandoning its potentially intriguing thesis.

At a Las Vegas funeral, Lewis meets long-lost daughter Liv (Gwyneth Paltrow), a knobby-kneed, Lisa Kudrow-esque ditz whose some kind of casino showgirl. She accompanies estranged dad on the road, cramping his style but proving able to carry a tune. Duets is directed by Bruce Paltrow, Gwyneth's father, but their actual kinship brings nothing fresh to the clichéd father-daughter bonding on screen.

Another plot thread has "Felicity's" Scott Speedman as a lovelorn cab driver who hooks up with an intimidating free spirit (Maria Bello of Coyote Ugly) who's motivated by her love of singing and doesn't hesitate to perform sexual favors to cover her expenses. Speedman works his rumpled, just-rolled-out-of-bed sexuality to its utmost, but, surprisingly, he is the only lead who never steps up to a mic.

Most of the film hinges on the duo comprised of burned-out business traveler Todd (Paul Giamatti) and inscrutable ex-con Reggie ("Homicide's" Andre Braugher). John Byrum's script, in fact, reserves most of its sympathy for Todd, who provides a vehicle for pointed commentary about generic America.

Braugher's armed robber proves gentle and soft-spoken, and their team improves on the similar dynamic of Martin Lawrence and Tim Robbins in Nothing to Lose. Their give-and-take frequently amuses, with Todd ranting about the lack of soul in corporations and suburbs. As enjoyable as Braugher and Giamatti may be, the film spends such a disproportionate amount of time with them that you wonder if the other couples have scenes on the cutting room floor.

Braugher is the only one of the leads who does none of his own singing, and though he's a passionate lip-syncer, you never for an instant believe that Arnold McCuller's voice is coming from his mouth. The others needn't have great voices but only be credible to win karaoke contents, and that's basically the case with Bello doing the Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams" or Paltrow's twiggy take on "Bette Davis Eyes."

The film's song choice, mostly from 1970s and 1980s radio, might be true to karaoke menus nationwide, but none of the sing-along scenes have the nervy fun of Cameron Diaz's in My Best Friend's Wedding. Apart from a brief, offensive moment of a Japanese salaryman singing "That's What I Rike About You," Duets takes karaoke strangely seriously as a means of personal liberation. No doubt it's a gas for those hooked on it, but Duets only suggests that it makes miserable losers into, well, happier losers as they follow the bouncing ball.