Directed by: Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton)
Starring: Clive Owen, Julia Roberts, Tom Wilkinson, Paul Giamatti, Dan Daily, Carrie Preston
With its fractured narrative and its myriad convolutions Tony Gilroy’s Duplicity still isn’t nearly as clever and sophisticated as it’s obviously meant to be, but I’m not sure it matters very much. It’s a stylish, entertaining movie with pretty people in pretty clothes (or in very few clothes, which is OK as long it’s pretty people) in pretty locations (all right, so the scenes in Georgia and Cleveland aren’t so pretty) saying witty things. At this point in the moviegoing year, it’s probably foolish to ask for more. This is a movie movie—with a bottle of Dom Perignon at the end. Stylish direction, a script that “thinks,” Clive Owen, Julia Roberts and champagne. It’s late March and that ain’t bad. I’m actually doing Duplicity a disservice. It would still be a good movie if we were in the midst of awards season. It just wouldn’t be as welcome or noteworthy.
Owen and Roberts play Ray Koval and Claire Stenwick, two former government agents (he was MI6 and she was C.I.A.), who have decided to put their skills to use in the private sector for ill-gotten gains. The problem—or one of the problems, anyway—is that they don’t/can’t trust each other. Reduced to its simplest level, that’s pretty much the story of Duplicity.
The trick is that this is a film in which nothing—including its structure—is actually simple, and what’s hiding at its “spiritual” center is a 1960s espionage flick with the east-west conflict exchanged for rival big-business interests. Considering the increasingly hollow ring that echoes from the James Bond franchise, Duplicity is its logical extension: its modern counterpart. And frankly, it gives the genre a much-needed dusting, while slyly satirizing the originals by reducing world powers to cosmetics manufacturers—Howard Tully (Tom Wilkinson) and Richard Garsik (Paul Giamatti)—who are at “war” less because of any real issue than because they’re enmeshed in a personal game of one-upmanship.
Gilroy, however, is too cheeky to let it stop at that. He’s also turned the form into a comedic battle of the sexes. To watch Owen and Roberts dupe each other, best each other, distrust each other and somewhat skeptically combine forces is to recall movie romances from the golden age of cinema: Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, William Powell and Carole Lombard, Herbert Marshall and Miriam Hopkins. Herbert Marshall and Miriam Hopkins? Yes, indeed. In fact, I’d be greatly surprised if Gilroy was unaware of that duo in Ernst Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise (1932), where they play a pair of thieving con artists who fall in love precisely because they can outwit each other, and who team up to con a perfume millionairess (Kay Francis). The similarities are kind of hard to miss, but Gilroy, Owen and Roberts certainly don’t disgrace the earlier film.
To top it all off, Duplicity doles out its story in bits and pieces via a structure that keeps backtracking to bring the viewer up to speed on just how Ray and Claire arrived at the stage of the current narrative. In many ways, this structural device is as witty as anything in the film, but it runs the risk of both alienating a portion of the audience and feeling just a little too clever. At times, it even succumbs to that second risk, and it’s hard not to ask if a more straightforward approach mightn’t have been a little wiser. But even if it might have been, why deny Gilroy his fun? And since he mostly conveys that fun to us, why would you really want to?
Yes, I know I’ve said little about the plot. That’s deliberate. You needn’t really know anything more than the essentials—that Ray and Claire are out to con and defraud a couple of warring corporate bosses—and, in fact, the less you know, the more fun you’re apt to have. And having some fun—without having to check your brain at the box office—is what Duplicity is all about. Rated PG-13 for language and some sexual content.