Stage Frightful


Karaoke represents liberation in Duets—far more than a train-wreck by-product of oblivious drunkenness, it’s a transformative escape for the wounded souls here, who stumble upon true meaning in the act of belting out some moldy oldie that we haven’t heard nearly often enough. A more interesting movie would have positioned karaoke, with its sad, cruel sense of repetition and predestination, not as a cure but a metaphor for the deadening treadmill routineness of modern life. As it is, Duets merely confirms that, in all karaoke-related matters, intoxicants help—a truism the film half-heartedly acknowledges by having one character ingest a handful of beta-blockers before bursting into song.

Duets is, broadly speaking, a road movie, though there’s a decided lack of forward motion in the way it ushers together three odd couples for a climactic amateur night in Omaha. Bitch-on-wheels Maria Bello finds a savior in sappy-doormat cab driver Scott Speedman. Glazed Vegas showgirl/naïf Gwyneth Paltrow (who doesn’t embarrass herself with her singing; her concussed acting is another matter) demonstrates clingy, creepy affection for her recently discovered father, a crumpled karaoke hustler played by Huey Lewis (a subplot made doubly icky by the presence of Gwyneth’s dad, Bruce, behind the camera). Angry white man Paul Giammati, a new convert to the joys of karaoke, turns into Kevin Spacey in American Beauty (though unfortunately not Edward Norton in Fight Club) and, mid-rampage, picks up a hitchhiker, escaped convict and designated font of wisdom Andre Braugher. Bruce Paltrow adopts a milder variation of a manipulation technique Lars von Trier hones to evil perfection in Dancer in the Dark: numbing the audience, with an onslaught of sustained miserableness, into helplessly anticipating the musical numbers. This works up until about “Islands in the Stream.”

A no less familiar pas de deux transpires during a protracted overnight interrogation in Under Suspicion, a sleazy police procedural with wobbly philosophical pretensions. The setting is San Juan, Puerto Rico (“a small Caribbean island,” the press notes helpfully inform us). Questionably motivated detective Morgan Freeman summons bigshot attorney Gene Hackman away from a fundraiser to cross-examine him about the rape and murder of two adolescent girls. Directed with assaultive showiness by Stephen Hopkins, the film remakes Claude Miller’s stagy 1980 chamber piece, Garde à Vue, minus clammy claustrophobia. Instead Hopkins (Lost in Space) substitutes a disreputable made-for-cable poshness and grotesque stylizations: Hackman’s testimony is visualized in arty flashbacks, which feature a disbelieving Freeman in the role of Hackman’s conscience, and appear to have been shot by a lush and edited with a shredder. Strangely, there’s no thrust and parry to this potentially heavyweight mind game. The effect is more like a tennis match in which every feebly contested point ends with an unforced error.