American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
"Duets" has little islands of humor and even perfection, floating in a sea of missed marks and murky intentions. There must have been a lot of scenes that everybody was happy with on the set, but they don't add up--the movie is all over the map. Its fundamental error is that it tries to squeeze bittersweet heartbreak and goofy social satire into the same story. Just when the movie gets the rhythm, it steps on its own feet.
The screenplay by John Byrum weaves together the stories of three couples, all destined to meet at a $5,000 karaoke contest in Omaha, Neb. All three stories involve ancient movie formulas: (1) the daughter who wants to bond with her long-lost father, (2) the black guy and white guy from different worlds who become best friends, and (3) the slut with a good heart, who redeems the aimless guy who lacks faith in himself. Combine these with the big contest that only one couple can win, and you have an exercise in recycling.
Still, if the movie had found one tone and stayed with it, the material might have worked better--there's a lot of isolated stuff to like in this movie. The fatal miscalculation is to make one of the stories (the black guy and white guy) deeper and more somber than the others, so the film is forever plunging into gloom and then trying to get the grin back on its face.
Paul Giamatti is touching and, at first, funny as a sales executive who gets fed up with his brutal work load, walks out on his family and hits the road. He meets Andre Braugher, an ex-con with a violent past, and in some weird way they bond during a karaoke night in a bar on the highway to nowhere. I liked the way that both of these characters were literally transformed once they stepped into the karaoke spotlight.