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  Directed by
  • Widescreen 1.85:1
  • 16:9 Enhanced
  • Dual Layer (RSDL 72.17)
  • English: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
  • Spanish: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
    English, Spanish, Dutch


    Hollywood Pictures/Buena Vista . R4 . COLOR . 107 mins . M15+ . PAL


    If you’ve seen Robert Altman’s classic Hollywood satire The Player you’ll undoubtedly remember the scene where Buck Henry enthusiastically pitches his idea for The Graduate Part 2 to a movie studio exec, who actually takes the bait. That’s possibly what it was like to be in the room at Disney when writer/producer John Byrum pitched Duets: “it’s a bittersweet ensemble drama about three pairs of people getting to know themselves and each other in three separate stories that all meet up at the end, when each of them is involved in a karaoke contest,” says our writer. “KARAOKE?” yelps Mr Executive excitedly. “GREEN LIGHT THIS SUCKER AND CALL THE RECORD COMPANY!”

    Yes, if you took a look at the packaging for Duets, you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s all about karaoke, that not-so-ancient Japanese art of murdering classic songs by getting drunk and singing along to muzak-style cover-version backing tracks of them in front of your drunk and presumably very amused friends. Karaoke can be hilariously good fun to watch and, given an audience with a sense of fun and humour, fun to participate in as well. But these wacky Americans, they can’t just stop at fun. No, there’s got to be a “karaoke circuit” where there are sing-for-prize-money contests and a bunch of people that actually take the whole thing completely seriously, travelling from city to city in search of the “big win”. They sing with talent-quest-calibre passion over designed-by-robots backing tracks, and none of them can pronounce the word “karaoke” properly. Scary stuff, especially if you thought the whole thing was supposed to be a little bit of harmless fun. Mind you, there are people here that treat it all as a bit of a joke; the implication, though, is that they’re to be laughed at for not taking it all completely seriously!

    However, Duets is not really about karaoke at all; the bad-singing contest is merely a plot tool used to propel the characters from city to city, thereby instantly creating a kind of road movie whilst also handily allowing for musical interludes (depending, of course, on your definition of “music”). It’s not even a comedy, though you’d never know it from the hyperbole-laden back-cover blurb, in which every single sentence ends with an exclamation mark (no, we’re not kidding). “The lives of six strangers become outrageously intertwined when a riotous road trip culminates at the site of the national karaoke championships!” it gurgles, managing to cram more misinformation into a single sentence than you usually find in a month of tabloid news. For starters, the six strangers remain as duos until the very end of the movie, and even then they barely get to meet each other. The road trip is far from “riotous” - it is, in fact, an almost elegiac ode to lost opportunities and mid-life crises, broken relationships and broken hearts, self-degradation and suicide. Oh, and the “national karaoke championships” actually are just another tourney (in Nebraska!) that happens to offer a hefty cash prize. You won’t be at all surprised to learn that the PR hack who came up with this contender for Misleading Blurb Of The Year is based in hype-drowned Hollywood.

    If, on the other hand, you’re here for the ensemble drama, then you’ll have a reasonable time of it; as far as these things go (and the three-groups-of-two-people interconnected-story thing is becoming almost a genre unto itself these days) it’s reasonably involving and suitably offbeat, though ultimately two of the three stories are paper-thin and unsatisfying. Best of the bunch is the main story, the interplay between burnt-out corporate salesman Todd Woods (Paul Giamatti) and escaped con Reggie Kane (Andre Braugher) as the former goes progressively nuts and the latter tries to find his purpose. But the father-daughter tale between Gwyneth Paltrow and Huey Lewis (whose acting makes a Powerpoint design template seem like Saving Private Ryan by comparison) never gets beyond surface cliches, and a potentially interesting tale involving an “underachiever” and the self-loathing but determined woman that he’s driving across the country (played with relish by Maria Bello) is denied the chance of a real emotional resolution just for the chance to give Gwyneth a romantic interest.

    Directed with a cool professionalism and complete lack of cinematic fuss by TV veteran Bruce Paltrow (yes, he’s Gwyneth’s dad), Duets is a lot more watchable than you might expect, but this kind of thing’s been done before, done way better - and most importantly, done without the need to inflict karaoke performances on the audience.


    Presented in its theatrical 1.85:1 aspect ratio (the back cover incorrectly states 2.35:1) and 16:9 enhanced, this is an okay transfer of the film that never threatens to deliver the eye-pleasing sparkle of the best Buena Vista DVD offerings. The main problem here is a lack of detail, which is in no small part due to the amount of grain visible throughout - just look at shots where a white wall is in the background, and note how you could be looking at it through ground glass. Probably because of this graininess, a very high encoding bitrate has been used and the film spread of a dual layered disc, but even without undue interference from compression problems there’s still something missing here; if we were to compare it directly with anything in quality terms, it’d be the third season of Buffy or similar TV material - competent, but not in any way startling. The muted colours and limited contrast range seem to have been a deliberate choice by the filmmakers, and aren’t as much of a worry.

    The layer change, by the way, is extremely well placed and almost imperceptibly fast.


    There may be a fair amount of music throughout, but this movie’s Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track keeps to the front channels for most of the time and never threatens to become a sound experience. Dialogue is anchored to the centre as usual (and sometimes recorded at a very low level) as are most of the song vocals; the thin karaoke backing music is spread across the front, with audience noise, applause and effects subtly in the rears. The LFE track is not used aside from during the Sweet Dreams “number”. An audio mix that does the job and nothing more, it downmixes fine to stereo.


    If you’re fond of Duets, you’ll probably be excited to learn of extra features including a commentary track by director Paltrow and producer Kevin Jones, four deleted scenes, an eight minute interview with Paltrow and a multi-angle music video of the Gwyneth/Huey single Cruisin’, along with trailers for Duets and two other films.

    You are excited to learn of these extras? Good - go order the US region 1 version of the disc, because they’re not on the completely extras-free region 4 offering at all.


    An average ensemble drama that’s not the slightest bit a comedy despite what the marketers would like you to think, Duets is mostly well acted, reasonably well made and should please people who like their pathos wrapped up with a little bit of homespun philosophy and some really, really bad singing. Disappointingly the region 4 version has had all its extra features removed (interestingly, the UK version contains a trailer and some interview clips, but not the rest of the extras); you’d have to seriously love the movie to be prepared to pay the hefty premium to import a copy just to get missing features that should have been here in the first place.

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      And I quote...
    "An average ensemble drama that’s not the slightest bit a comedy... the region 4 version has had all its extra features removed"
    - Anthony Horan
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