Duets is an odd and enchanting sleeper. Although it boasts a star (Gwyneth Paltrow) and a hit song ("Cruisin'"), the film has an ordinary, unglamorous air. Many of the actors' faces are unfamiliar, and much of the characters' behaviour is daggy and off-beat.
This is a genuinely original film with a curious premise taken to quietly surreal conclusions. Comparisons with the work of Robert Altman or Paul Thomas Anderson miss what is peculiar to Duets.
Although it is, from one angle, a road movie featuring a multiplicity of characters and story threads, the American landscape makes few appearances. Instead, this is a country which happens to be characterised by one essential element: karaoke.
All the characters cruise from one karaoke bar to the next. These singers who live out their fantasies for a moment in the spotlight are not drunken revellers. Karaoke, as rendered here, is all at once a fervent subculture, a dirty business, and a ritual space in which people's identities undergo weekly metamorphosis. There are karaoke hustlers, managers, local cult heroes.
Duets is directed – not always confidently – by Gwyneth's father, Bruce – which adds a special poignancy to the father-daughter relationship depicted in the film (with Huey Lewis as the reluctant Dad). Bruce Paltrow died in October 2002 and this was his only theatrical feature besides A Little Sex (1982).
The real auteur here is writer and co-producer John Byrum, one of those sadly marginal figures in modern American cinema who has drifted from directing a handful of films, including Inserts (1975) and Heart Beat (1980), to playwriting. Byrum's way with characterisation and dialogue is superb. Where so many Hollywood films treat working class people like exotic creatures from another planet, Duets offers a wholly unselfconscious portrayal.
Then there are the intriguing patterns into which Byrum weaves his people and plots: themes and variations involving literal and metaphoric forms of imprisonment, escape, crime and exploitation.
In this film of perpetual drifting, every key relationship becomes headily ambiguous. Paltrow and Lewis are introduced as potential lovers before they discover they are father and daughter. A frustrated, suburban businessman (Paul Giamatti) and an ex-con (Andre Braugher) enter into a fond friendship that redefines and almost exchanges their life paths. A cab driver (Scott Speedman) and his daredevil passenger (Maria Bello) come up against the flimsiness of their respective, extreme philosophies of idealism and cynicism.
There is surprising anger and melancholy in Byrum's picture of America today – far more thoughtfully and truthfully, to my eyes, than in American Beauty (1999). But there is an extra layer in Duets, because it is, in its own, unique way, a modern musical.
Bruce Paltrow gives enormous weight and dignity to the scenes of karaoke performance. These are magical moments bordering on complete, wish-fulfilment fantasy: everyone, for a few seconds, becomes the star of their own show. And in the world of smashed hopes and missed opportunities sketched here, the fragile, utopian possibilities released by these pop standards is truly poignant.
© Adrian Martin February 2001