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"Duets" is a romantic ensemble drama-slash-road movie that takes place in the rarified parallel universe of karaoke.

Like fans of "Star Trek" and other sub-cultures, karaoke has its own devoted partisans, people who live for the night at their local bar, where they can sing along to pre-recorded versions of their favorite songs to the delight or agony of their fellow crooners.

It's a rich human vein to tap, but "Duets" uses karaoke as a backdrop, without providing a deeper context. The movie follows three duos who've been thrown together by fate - each of whom is travelling to a karaoke championship in Omaha, where their destinies, inevitably, catch up with them.

Of the couples, Paul Giamatti (as a disaffected theme-park developer) and Andre Braugher (as a hitchhiker with a mysterious past) are by far the most compelling. Giamatti is one of the best character actors of his generation, and he makes a funny and poignant modern-day Willy Loman. When he says he's been living his life in chains, he means Ramada Inn and Best Western.

Braugher brings his usual level of intensity, focus and emotional expression to the almost angelic wanderer who snaps Giamatti's character out of his downward spiral. In his fedora and crumpled raincoat, he looks like the 21st-century version of Frank Sinatra's lonely stranger in the night.

Gwyneth Paltrow and Huey Lewis play another pair, she as a Las Vegas showgirl and he as the father she never knew. Although Paltrow's knock-kneed performance as a naive young girl is off-key, she turns out to have a fantastic singing voice; her duet with Lewis at the end of the movie is a show-stopper.

Maria Bello, looking like a slightly more sultry version of Neve Campbell, plays a hard-bitten drifter who persuades a sweet Cincinnati cab-driver (Scott Speedman) to take her to California; the emotional axis around which these two spin is never deeply defined or explored.

"Duets," which was directed by Paltrow's father, is a slight, episodic ode to the deracinated American, who is only able to find connection through taking on a fantasy persona in front of an audience of fellow dreamers. The movie pretends to valorize the karaoke culture, but the filmmakers' true feelings about it come out at the film's climax, when some real-life karaoke folks take the stage in Omaha.

Here, they're portrayed as kooky, somewhat laughable wannabes, whether they're a corny couple singing "Islands in the Stream" in matching outfits, or an overweight man in a Hawaiian shirt belting out "Copacabana." Where "Duets" should inspire cheers for the bravery and honesty with which karaokers pursue their obsession, it winds up subtly jeering their small-town dreams of fame and attention - the same dreams, by the way, the filmmakers and cast have managed to attain for themselves.

Of the actors brave enough to do their own singing, Giamatti deserves mention for his surprisingly good blue-eyed-soul chops. His version of "Try a Little Tenderness" (with Arnold McCuller doubling Braugher's voice) is a revelation on a par with Jack Black's galvanizing appearance earlier this year in "High Fidelity."

Giamatti provides those small moments of triumph that "Duets" pretends to celebrate but instead stifles with its sense of superiority.


Starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Huey Lewis, Paul Giamatti, Andre Braugher, Maria Bello, Scott Speedman

Directed by Bruce Paltrow

Released by Hollywood Pictures

Running time 112 minutes

Rated R (language and some sexuality)

Sun Score: * 1/2

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