The latest curveball from American Idol Season Nine: this somewhat charisma-challenged and pitch-deficient Final Four turns out to have substantial skill as ... halves of duets? While it's nice to be able to point to a pleasant Idol surprise for a change, it can't be a good sign that even the judges, who have a vested interest in promoting the eventual winner as America's next big thing, couldn't pretend that Tuesday's duets (a practice instituted at the Top Four stage last season) weren't more intriguing than the four solo performances, which ranged from fair to middling as has been the case throughout the post-Tim Urban era.
Idol returned to one of its staple themes, songs from movies; and in an unusual move, decided to bring back a mentor, Jamie Foxx. As someone who won an Oscar playing a great singer, Foxx is slightly more suited to this theme than to helming "Rat Pack Songs" as he did last season, but it's not all that clear what he brings to the table other than enthusiasm. His gimmick during rehearsals was to present the singers with t-shirts denoting whether they should be considered "artists" or mere "contestants." Foxx's explanation of why one wasn't necessarily worse than the other was not all that easy to follow, but at least the show didn't run long for a change.
So who wins the prize for Best in Show when it comes to overblown soundtrack Velveeta?
1. Crystal Bowersox/Lee DeWyze ("Falling Slowly"): While this ballad was performed as a duet in the film Once, most Idol fans will remember it as the true starting point of Kris Allen's run to the title last season. Lee and Crystal took a small risk in coming back to it again so soon, but it turned out to be a triumph on a par with Kris's. We knew all along that the two frontrunners would be working together this week (even before we knew that Crystal regards Lee as her "musical crush"), but the skill of their harmonizing could not have been predicted, even though the duo decided to forsake the almost whispery tenderness of the Once version. While Crystal's excellence was par for the course, Lee was much stronger here than I have heard him in weeks, which raises the possibility that his recent run of mediocrity has more to do with his ambivalence about song choice than his skill level. B
2. Casey James/Michael Lynche ("Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman"): Props, obviously, must go to Ellen DeGeneres for answering the question posed by this song in the affirmative. But attention must also be paid to the two men who looked like cannon fodder heading into the night. Saddled with low expectations and having to perform a lousy song that's been done too many times on Idol already, these two were even better matched than Crystal and Lee. They grade out slightly lower because Casey's vocal was a little too inconsistent, but when he turned the lead over to Big Mike and concentrated on his guitar, it became quite lovely indeed, in a very manly and woman-loving way. Randy Jackson appeared to single Michael out for special praise, but if it's the preference of the judges that he is the one to survive this week, I'm not sure that mission was accomplished. B
3. Casey ("Mrs. Robinson"): Casey has been the most predictable of the remaining contestants when it comes to song choice (not when it comes to performance quality, which has been all over the map lately). But this was the night's most unusual decision, and while I'm not totally sure the viewers bought it, I liked seeing Casey switch things up so dramatically at this late stage. Seated and playing a mandolin for the first time, he sounded soulful (if occasionally too vibrato-y, yet again). The song choice might not have been the best idea, however. There's an irony to "Mrs. Robinson" that I don't think Casey really appreciates, and when all the judges chose to relate the performance to Kara DioGuardi's leering over Casey earlier in the season, it was guaranteed the point was going to be lost for good. This may have bought him one extra week, though. B-
4. Crystal ("I'm Alright"): Crystal has not fostered an image of herself as slaphappy, so she probably helped herself by talking up the joys of Caddyshack. And she correctly guessed that she would be the only person this week to go with something upbeat: another smart move. But I'm faced with the problem of trying to separate out my feelings about Crystal's performance with my belief that this is a dopey song and that Kenny Loggins's career as the Soundtrack King is an era in musical and film history best forgotten. Ellen and Kara told Crystal she had improved the original version, which is really damning with faint praise. She was reasonably faithful to Loggins at first, but took the song to gospel-land on her second run through the chorus. The judges loved her again for the first time in a while, and in truth, she deserves credit for turning a crap sandwich into something we could choke down. B-
5. Michael ("Will You Be There"): After coming close to saying goodbye last week, Big Mike needed a real game-changer. Unfortunately, Movie Night is not the place where you're going to find a left-field choice like "This Woman's Work" -- nearly all the songs on the list contestants could choose from were hideous ballads like this one from Free Willy. Is it really possible to do well on any song Michael Jackson recorded after "Black or White?" While Mike's run on Idol following the save vindicates much of what he's done in recent weeks, I still believe he was more interesting when he was coming across more like Kris Allen in the body of a huge black man than the fairly generic R&B singer we've seen of late. The treatment of this song, including the inevitable choir, brought out all of Mike's worst tendencies; and while he made few notable mistakes, nothing about it mattered five minutes after he was finished. C+
6. Lee ("Kiss From a Rose"): Before I hammer him, I need to apologize to Lee for having misspelled his name repeatedly for the last three months (the correct spelling is DeWyze with two capitals). Really, I have no excuse. But (deflecting) what is Lee's excuse for choosing a song that highlights his lack of range and inability to hold pitch when he goes into his upper register? He had done well lately in avoiding such songs, but after he audibly cracked going for the first big high note, he attempted to cheat his way through the rest of the song, which only made him sound flat. There were a few rock-type numbers Lee could have picked from, and that's clearly the box the judges want him in. But their criticism of him was still interspersed with comments like "you're so great" and "everyone loves you." Well, no, not quite everyone. C
So who will be going home? Lee is almost certainly bulletproof despite his lousy solo, and Casey proved last week that he has the fan backing to survive a total flameout. Big Mike, on the other hand, was not only in last week's bottom two despite being pretty decent, but he's even been voted out once already. My bet is that his new lease on life will finally expire Wednesday.