Can’t Sing a Lick 

There’s plenty of disharmony Duets, the best movie ever made about competitive karaoke.

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The script for Duets was safely gathering dust on a shelf somewhere until Gwyneth Paltrow decided she wanted to star in it—and what’s more, she wanted her father Bruce to direct it.

Cinema ClipsThe Way of the Gun ***1/2

Writer-director Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects) creates a delicious array of smart, resourceful characters in this uptempo modern Western. Parker (Ryan Philippe) and Longbaugh (Benicio Del Toro) concoct a plan to kidnap the surrogate mother (Juliette Lewis) for the child of an organized-crime bagman and ransom her for $15 million. The plot thickens as the antiheroes try to stay away from old-time thug Sarno (James Caan) and two bodyguards (Taye Diggs and Nicky Katt). The script plows through a few momentary slows, while Philippe and Caan stand out in a picture filled with magnetic performances. There’s a little French New Wave, a little Tarantino, and a lot of McQuarrie in an exciting feature debut. —GB

Bait ***

Jamie Foxx and director Antoine Fuqua deliver a by-the-numbers action-comedy that aims low and hits its target. He plays an ex-con who learns a secret about some missing gold shortly before he’s released. He unwittingly has a microchip implanted in his jaw, enabling a Treasury Dept. agent (David Morse) to follow him while waiting for a crazy criminal guy to try to get the gold. Foxx, who showed his dramatic chops in Any Given Sunday, handles both the comedic and dramatic sides of a schizophrenic script with skill, and Doug Hutchison is unconventionally creepy as the villain. It won’t make you think and it won’t make you applaud, but you’ll get the easy laughs and the big explosions you paid for. —GB

Almost Famous ***

Salt Laker Patrick Fugit makes an impressive film debut as a teenager accompanying a rock band on a cross-country tour for an article in Rolling Stone. The premise of Cameron Crowe’s film may sound far-fetched, but the film succeeds thanks to a good script and solid performances from a cast that includes Frances McDormand, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Billy Crudup. An interesting look at life in a mid-level rock band, the film is really about artistic integrity and the importance of family in whatever form it takes. (R) —MD

Eyes of Tammy Faye ****

No one could have invented a character as bizarre as Tammy Faye. This insightful and often hilarious documentary provides a fitting profile of the buffoonish televangelist whose trademark mascaraed eyes and constant tears made her an international laughing stock. In an appropriate bit of kitsch, the film is narrated by transvestite Ru Paul. Segments chronicling Tammy and Jim’s many travails are demarcated by scraggly hand puppets who read headings like “Things only get worse.” The documentary shows Tammy as a caricature of herself, but it also paints her as a true American original, and a sympathetic one at that. (NR) —MD

The Watcher *1/2

Against all logic and human decency, Keanu Reeves stars as the most unconvincing serial killer since Andrew Cunanan. Reeves’ off-the-charts bad performance kills any hope for this ultrageneric thriller featuring James Spader as the requisite burnt-out lawman chasing redemption in the form of Keanu, who strangles his pretty female victims and talks like the skater version of Cary Grant. From the illogical sight of Marisa Tomei as a psychologist to the bizarrely ineffective booby traps and puzzle-clues set by Keanu, this picture begs to be sent quickly to video and expunged from moviegoers’ long-suffering minds. (R) —GB

Whipped *

A romantic comedy so bad, it’s not even any fun to mock it. Lovely Amanda Peet is the object of affection for three single men, who sit around talking to each other ad nauseam about the least interesting parts of their relationships. Writer-director Peter M. Cohen has a shockingly weak command of his dialogue, which comes out in chunks of glaringly unfunny pablum. Oh, there’s also a joke about a loaded toilet and a vibrator. This attempt to marry the hip relationship talk of Swingers with some sort of bastardized female empowerment fable is an appropriately inept way to cap a learning-deficient summer at the movies. (R) —GB

Highlander: Endgame *1/2

One more attempt to wring another few million dollars out of the most unlikely of science fiction franchises. Christopher Lambert is joined by Adrian Paul, the star of the syndicated TV series, and they basically run around learning about other immortals, with no clear objective or object to be saved. The requisite action and confusing camera work are here, but there’s little humor and even less self-awareness. Lambert and Paul take their silly roles incredibly seriously, which makes the film even less fun than living forever. (R) —GB

The Five Senses ***

Canadian filmmaker Jeremey Podeswa follows five characters, who live and work in the same building, over the course of three days. Mary Louise Parker is a cake decorator rendezvousing with the handsome Italian chef she met on holiday. Her best friend is a bisexual house cleaner who claims you can “smell” love. Her eye doctor, the film’s most moving story, has learned he is going deaf. Her massage therapist has lost touch with her daughter, and the daughter has lost a little girl she was supposed to be watching in the park. The skillfully crafted film follows their interlocking stories, revealing their pain and loneliness until they eventually find love. Parker is the least appealing of the characters, who, not surprisingly, destroys her own possibilities for happiness. (R) —MD

The Art of War *1/2

Wesley Snipes’ latest vehicle does very little to distinguish itself from the rest of Snipes’ unambitious oeuvre. He’s a United Nations intelligence operative framed for the murder of a Chinese ambassador, leading to lots of martial arts capering and the shooting of many guns. Don’t go expecting art, but don’t criticize Snipes for finding a low level of stardom and staking his claim. After all, somebody has to make bad movies. (R) —GB

Bring It On ***

Peyton Reed’s clever comedy about high school cheerleading is one of the funnier teen movies to emerge from the summer sludge. Kirsten Dunst plays the head cheerleader who’s trying to lead her San Diego squad to its sixth National High School Cheerleading Championship. Things seem to fall apart when she learns that the hot routine choreographed by her predecessor was stolen from their arch rivals, the inner-city L.A. Clovers. Reed’s comedy has enough voyeuristic shots of nubile young women in underwear and short skirts to keep male audiences in high spirits if that’s all they’re after. It also does a great job of satirizing the cheerleading culture, and championing old-fashioned values of good sportsmanship and fair play. (PG-13) —MD

Never mind that Duets is a painfully predictable and sometimes offensively dumb road movie that takes place in the less-than-compelling world of competitive karaoke. Vanity projects aren’t arbitrated by common sense. Before they broke up, this was to be Paltrow’s chance to star with Brad Pitt, the chance for Gwynnie to revive her dad’s dead directing career—and the chance to sing! What could possibly go wrong?

Well, more than a little. Only a few carefree performances and a couple of nice musical numbers save Duets from being a total wipeout. The material and execution here both seem stale, and with good reason: Paltrow père hasn’t directed anything but TV crap since 1982’s A Little Sex, while screenwriter John Byrum, who was a hot ticket in the late ’70s and early ’80s, hasn’t had a script produced since his embarrassing writing-directing job on The Razor’s Edge in 1984 (You want to see Bill Murray look constipated for 125 minutes? Rent this.).

In two-hour TV-movie fashion (complete with editing that could easily have allowed for commercial breaks), the script follows six people on disparate, desultory paths to a karaoke championship in Omaha with a (gasp) $5,000 prize.

There’s a “karaoke hustler” (Huey Lewis) who apparently travels the country finding people dumb enough to bet on whether his karaoke performances will win over a crowd. He’s joined by the daughter (Gwynnie, talking like a 12-year-old for some reason) he never knew he had until going to Las Vegas for her mother’s funeral. The daughter wants to bond, but the father resists. Guess what happens?

Lewis studied at the Bon Jovi school of acting, where staring at the wall passes for deep philosophical contemplation, and the young Paltrow actually has fairly little screen time, considering this is her baby. The only surprise is that Gwyneth can sing. She slips through a very passable rendition of “Bette Davis Eyes” with nary a misstep.

The second couple is the least interesting: WB hunk Scott Speedman, who simply cannot stop smiling, is a brokenhearted Cincinnati cab driver recruited by a spike-heeled misogynist wet dream (Maria Bello, lovely and wasted) to drive her to the competition, then on to California. Bello’s character—who does things like blow a guy in exchange for painting the cab pink—is another variation on that hideous hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold character that the worst screenwriters have been foisting upon actresses for decades.

She’s almost as offensive as the fate of the ex-convict played by Andre Braugher, who joins Paul Giamatti to create the only interesting story line in the film. Giamatti, a compelling character actor who scores in a lead here, is a burned-out salesman named Todd who suddenly heads out on the road to nowhere in his lime-green Cadillac. Like everybody in the film, he’s looking for redemption, and he finds it by singing karaoke—and in a vaguely homoerotic relationship with Reggie (Braugher), an angel of the laziest liberal-racist sort.

Reggie sings a kick-ass duet with Todd on “Try a Little Tenderness,” helps Todd to Learn Something About Himself, then turns out to be merely the noble black man whose most fervent desire is to sacrifice himself for Todd’s well-being. It’s quite offensive that Paltrow and Byrum would try to pass this off on us as plot resolution, but at least it’s a fairly original way of sucking. Most filmmakers would never think to dig this deep into the back of the cliche drawer.

Paltrow and Byrum are looking for an Altman vibe here, a slice-of-life road movie that illuminates deeper truths about our culture. Actually, they only illuminate truths about the skewed worldviews of people who have spent their lives in the magical fairy world of entertainment. Whether or not this karaoke subculture exists (and whether anyone cares), its story is told here in wildly untrue shades of Hollywood moralism.

Paltrow, who also injects an undercurrent of sex and violence that clashes with the rest of the picture’s fairy-tale nature, seems to have no concept of what makes a movie real or compelling. He’s sort of a karaoke director, trying to follow along to a song he doesn’t understand with lyrics he doesn’t know how to pronounce.

Well, at least his daughter can sing.

Duets HH Directed by Bruce Paltrow. Starring Huey Lewis, Paul Giamatti and Gwyneth Paltrow.

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About The Author

Greg Beacham

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