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Starring Maria Bello, Andre Braugher, Paul Giamatti, Huey Lewis, Gwyneth Paltrow, Scott Speedman and Angie Dickenson
Screenplay by John Byrum
Directed by Bruce Paltrow

IN SHORT: dreadful. [Rated R for language and some sexuality. 112 minutes]

Three pairs of strangers, united by the road. Hustlers, some, some running from lives they've left behind or hate. All brought together by the hustle for cash from Karaoke competitions at small bars all across the Heartland.

Gee, it sounds like a great pitch. Problem for us is that Karaoke has been dead for years here in New York (which is hundreds of times longer than the stillborn lambada "craze" lasted) and while we can't speak for Oklahoma and Utah, it's provides weak support for a story that is painful to sit through. It only takes about ten minutes for director Bruce Paltrow's Duets to start its nosedive into the depths of "why did I pay almost ten bucks for this?" Hell.

That first ten minutes, though, features a contest in some Tulsa, Oklahoma bar. The local "star," who can't sing a note, wagers a nerdy looking middle aged guy in a Seventies style polyester suit and thick glasses that said nerd could Karaoke to save his life. Those of us old enough to recognize Huey Lewis as character Ricky Dean, are going to enjoy The News' leader ripping into Joe Cocker's "Feeling Alright" (written by Dave Mason) and walking off with the cash and another man's date. Cash and sex only go so far -- his cellular phone goes off and Ricky is off to Las Vegas, for a reunion with the daughter he pretty much abandoned (Gwyneth Paltrow) and the mother in law (Angie Dickinson) who hates his guts. Gwyneth's Liv is an emotionally stinted young woman who behaves as if she were still harboring a fifteen year olds fantasies of a benevolent Daddy who one day will come home to his li'l Princess. Paltrow is too old to be playing such a role.

Elsewhere in the country, ex-jailbird reggie Kane (Andre Braugher) is hitchhiking and heisting his way across the country. He will find himself in the car of corporate sales burnout Todd Woods (Paul Giamatti). Paul Giamatti gets to play comic relief. We don't particularly find drunk driving or armed robbery (and implied murder) particularly funny. While Braugher's character is redeemed by playing guardian angel to the dolt, the way it goes down makes us want to roll our eyes.

Our third and final contestants -- they'll all find themselves battling for a $5,000 Grand Prize at a competition in Omaha, Nebraska -- are Billie Hannon (Scott Speedman), a cab driver fleeing a cheating girlfriend and Suzi Loomis (Maria Bello) who is trading sex for hotel rooms on her way to California.

You've got six people in fairly desperate situations in this story. Unlike the Karaoke regulars, who proclaim their three minutes on stage to be a "way of life," these folks ain't doing the time for a brief moment of glory. They're doing it to survive. Down in your guts you know someone isn't going to have a happy ending, and we're not talking about losing a contest, either.

At its root, Duets is scripted with dialog so awful that actors who dare to speak it and not question why should be savagely humiliated on some television clip show. Recorded with eyes on the CD soundtrack, even the actors with pipes enough to sing live are, for the most part, lip synching! Every now and again these ex-soundman's ears could pick up bits and pieces of live track, but they were pretty much few and far between.

We will pay compliments where they're due: Maria Bello and Andre Braugher have pretty good voices. Paltrow is OK and Giamatti is working so hard to provide comic relief where none exists, that we'll let him off the hook for wretched synchronizations.

On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Duets, he would have paid...


Even the visceral pleasure of seeing Gwyneth Paltrow in a micro mini isn't enough to recommend this awful flick. One of the worst movies we've seen this year.

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