Do we really need a movie that uses the karaoke-bar scene as a metaphor for life? Duets interweaves the disparate stories of three couples chasing the American Dream, and it’s woozy with its own windy philosophizing. Todd Woods (Paul Giamatti) is the bedraggled corporate salesman who spends so much time in look-alike hotel rooms and airports that he often can’t remember what city he’s in; when we first see him, he’s pitching an eco-disaster of a theme park to some gents in Houston while thinking he’s in Orlando. Todd is the hurt-puppy centerpiece of Duets. His wife and children barely acknowledge him when he makes it back to his nondescript suburban tract home, so he cracks and hits the road, sporting an earring and stopping in at hotels along the way. When he reluctantly enters a karaoke contest and lets loose his inner Sinatra, Todd is hooked.
Giamatti is best known for playing Pig Vomit in Howard Stern’s Private Parts, and he has a gift for playing wheedling small-timers (a great gift, I would say, having also seen him on Broadway as one of the barflies in The Iceman Cometh). In Duets, Giamatti plays Todd as someone whose life force is dangerously out of control, which may be more than director Bruce Paltrow and his screenwriter, John Byrum, bargained for. The filmmakers are life-affirming types – why else would they make this sludgy piece of serial inspirationalism? – and Giamatti is too rancid and frazzled for the hopeful send-off they give him. His performance is a prime example of how actors striving to maintain their dignity in subpar situations can turn their roles around with a denunciatory force.
Another specialist in this sort of thing is Andre Braugher, playing Reggie Kane, an ex-con, or maybe he’s an escaped con, who is picked up hitchhiking by Todd and becomes a soul mate. Braugher has such seething energy that he’s like a human time bomb; given almost nothing to work with, he creates a character whose instincts are with the underworld. We can believe that Reggie spent a good chunk of his life in jail because he looks around him as if through an escape hatch. He’s visored by fear. It’s the film’s conceit that Reggie has a voice to die for and a heart as big as Kmart. He coaxes Todd into returning to his family and sacrifices himself in the process. There’s a whiff of Touched by an Angel in all this, and it undercuts Braugher’s power.
The other duets don’t have much power to undercut. Scott Speedman plays a cabdriver trying to achieve some kind of inner harmony, although there doesn’t seem to be enough in him to harmonize with; he’s paired with Maria Bello, playing an ambitious crooner who, in a tasteless running gag, screws her way into all kinds of freebies on the road to redemption. Bello played the owner of the hooters club in Coyote Ugly; it’s time she quit the bar scene. Gwyneth Paltrow is a Vegas showgirl who meets up with the father she never knew, played by Huey Lewis, and ends up, like the other principals in the cast, journeying to Omaha for a karaoke contest. Paltrow does her own singing, and she has a pleasing voice that goes well with Lewis’s mellifluous rasp, but she’s playing a character of such bemused innocence that she seems stunted. She’s insufferably dewy. (Have we gone back to that silent-movie notion that virginal maidens are the only pure-in-heart?) Paltrow is always best playing slutty, edgy types, as in Flesh and Bone and Hard Eight and moments in The Talented Mr. Ripley, but her weeping-willow goldenness, which has its heavily bland side, is what attracts most filmmakers (her father is her director here).
Karaoke bars allow real people in boozy public gatherings to do things best left for the privacy of their own shower. This sentiment is not, however, endorsed by the film, which pushes the cant that karaoke allows us to throw off society’s shackles and all be stars, if only for a brief, shining hour. For a movie bursting with so much blather about the virtues of small-time selfhood, Duets has an unseemly tendency to be goggle-eyed about celebrity.
The documentary Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport, directed by Mark Jonathan Harris, confronts a relatively unexamined aspect of the Holocaust: For nine months prior to World War II, Britain, alone among the world’s nations, took advantage of the Nazis’ then-policy of forced emigration and brought over some 10,000 children, mostly Jewish, from Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia. The children were told by their parents that they would all soon be reunited, but most of the rescued never saw their families again.
What distinguishes Harris’s film, which was produced by Deborah Oppenheimer, the daughter of a rescued child, is the rarity of some of its archival footage, and its gallery of witnesses. Interviewed by the filmmakers, the grown-up kinder speak of the unspeakable, and as they do, their faces seem to deliquesce into those of the children they once were. Their recollections have a harrowing, kid’s-eye immediacy and sense of detail. The writer Lore Segal describes how the matter-of-fact way her mother described the transport was belied by her flushed face; she remembers the panicky discomfort in seeing her neighborhood streets suddenly filled with the red flags of the Reich and soldiers in crisp new uniforms. (Segal was one of the lucky ones: As a child, she later managed to secure menial jobs for her parents in Britain and thus rescue them in return.)
Many children sent to England by their parents felt betrayed, abandoned; with just four days allowed to pack their sons and daughters off, the parents had to scrunch into that brief time together a lifetime of counsel. Into the Arms of Strangers is, at least by Holocaust standards, a success story, but it doesn’t really feel that way, nor is it intended to be. The kinder were forced to lose their faith in people and then regain it at a time when most of them could barely comprehend what was at stake. Many of them still stare out at us fixed in incomprehension.