Kind of like "The Hustler" for the bouncing-ball set "Duets" unevenly follows six characters: the small-town singer headed for Hollywood (Maria Bello); the young cabbie searching for integrity (Scott Speedman); the ex-con with the voice of an angel (Andre Braugher); the burned-out salesman with a new lease on life (Paul Giamatti); and the karaoke hustler (Huey Lewis) who learns he has a daughter (Gwyneth Paltrow). Working their way through the interstates and karaoke bars of middle America they each pair up and come together to compete for the $5000 grand prize in a karaoke contest.
Believe it or not each person in this film uses his/her own voice in the musical segments and it works. Paltrow whispers a credible "Bette Davis Eyes " but has little more to do in her supporting role than hang around Huey like a lost puppy. Lewis ("Short Cuts") who looks like he'll break out with "Hip to be Square" at any moment should stick to singing. Bello ("Coyote Ugly") projects confidence as the wannabe star with a golden deep throat but overshadows cabbie partner Speedman who blends into the scenery with the lightest role of the chorus. Braugher ("Homicide: Life on the Street") is a believable threat as the crooning con. He's paired with borderline psychopath Giamatti who pleasantly steals the entire show. Seizing the best role Giamatti delivers an infectious high-energy performance while singing with impressive grace and range.
Effectively immersing the audience into the world of karaoke Bruce Paltrow (father of Gwyneth producer/writer/director of "St. Elsewhere" and "The White Shadow") injects unexpected life into an otherwise very shaky story line. This is a film that could have gone horribly wrong -- and almost does -- but somehow mysteriously Paltrow pulls it off. His attention to quirky detail and love for these thinly drawn characters shines through the unevenness of the story and poorly calculated lapses into serious violent territory. Though the film runs a bit long the fun lively atmosphere and vocal enthusiasm of the actors -- specifically Giamatti -- keeps "Duets" from losing the contest.
Psychiatric nurse Maggie O'Connor (Kim Basinger) raises her drug-addicted sister's baby who grows up to be a girl with "special" gifts like the ability to rock a dead bird back to life. When Cody turns 6 her mother returns to claim her. The trouble is mom is now married to Eric Stark (Rufus Sewell) leader of a Satanic cult masquerading as a self-help group. Stark wants Cody to use her powers for the "dark side " and will kill her if she refuses. Aunt Maggie enlists the aid of FBI agent John Travis (Jimmy Smits) to help her track down and save Cody.
Basinger 's passive bearing and scrubbed-down glamour seem out of place in the dingy New York settings. When Stark's snarling teenage-runaway groupies attack her they seem as angry at her smooth blond coif as anything else. Sewell does what he can with lines like "death would be a kinder fate" and "she will be ours" (this last line uttered while practically shaking his fist at the heavens). Vastly underused is Smits whose all-talk-and-no-action FBI agent wouldn't have lasted a day in "NYPD Blue's" precinct.
Although director Chuck Russell captures a rich textured look and lays on the ghoulish special effects (a river of red-eyed rats ominous whispers wraithlike demons) "Bless the Child" doesn't generate any real chill. It's not helped by the script which throws in every clich‚ possible about angels demons hellfire and brimstone. There's no avoiding comparison with "The Sixth Sense " the success of which surely must have put some heat under this project. Unfortunately it's a little too cooked.