Duplicity

March, 2009, Thriller

Directed by:Tony Gilroy

Starring:Clive Owen, Julia Roberts, Tom Wilkinson, and Paul Giamatti

Writer/Director Tony Gilroy follows his estimable Michael Clayton with this romantic caper pairing Julia Roberts and Clive Owen as ex spies (she for the C.I.A., he for England’s MI-5) who decide to utilize their considerable experience and hard-won skills by retiring from government service and devoting themselves to scamming companies in the private sector. Long on plot intricacies and the brittle dialogue which has made Gilory one of the most highly prized script “doctors” in the industry, Duplicity employs its handsome leads and a skilled supporting cast headed by Paul Giamatti and Tom Wilkinson in a storyline with more ins and outs than a pleated skirt. Roberts and Owen riff most effectively on the sexual innuendo Gilroy implants in their dialogue; the movie’s pacing is brisk and its cinematography handsome, but an overly complex structure combined with an unexpectedly flat resolution may leave you with the feeling you’ve somehow shortchanged. Despite lots of deft strokes, this one falls short of becoming what its ingredients promised.

North of 40 and as ravishing as ever, Roberts plays Claire Stenwick, a lushly charming agent who meets Ray Koval (Owen) on assignment, only to seduce and drug him in order to steal for the U.S. some Egyptian defense information Koval was to have delivered to his British superiors. Five years later, the couple find themselves apparently on the opposite sides of an industrial war being conduced by rival CEO’s Giamatti and Wilkinson. They lead rival consumer products companies and seem bent on personally destroying each other as their respective organizations battle for market place supremacy. When Wilkinson’s company, which employs Roberts as a member of its security team, appears to be on the brink of announcing a major new product, Giamatti’s in-house industrial spies recruit Owen to help them steal the formula. But flashbacks demonstrate that Roberts and Owen have their own agenda; an elaborately designed double-cross affecting both their employers. It should provide this larcenous pair a fool-proof method for getting rich…assuming they can actually trust one another.

A recent New Yorker article featured an extensive interview with Gilroy, focused on what he refers to as “reversals”; those elements in a plot where the audiences’ expectations are diverted in one direction only to be suddenly reversed by subsequent developments in the storyline. Duplicity exults in that device, but the director’s reliance on it so enthusiastically here creates two hurdles; it makes the film hard to follow and more dangerously, it signals that a really gigantic spin will come at the end of this convoluted storyline to cap all the false leads that preceded it. Unfortunately, those nimble enough to stay with Gilroy’s cleverly constructed twists and turns are presented with a plot resolution so anticlimactic it takes the edge off Duplicity’s frantically staged climax. Even worse, the comeuppance of Roberts and Owen, supposedly super slick espionage experts, hinges on a hackneyed device whose use here is little more than a cliché. Could a pair as shrewd this possibly have fallen into such an amateurish trap? 

Roberts has perfected a screen persona which demonstrates an unquestioned self-confidence in her sexual appeal. From Pretty Woman to Erin Brockovich to George Clooney’s long-suffering wife Tess in the Ocean’s trilogy, Roberts can summon facial expressions perfectly laced with just the right touch of carnality. She’s also mastered a hint of suggestiveness in delivering her lines, indicating that here is a woman who can tie any man in knots. Owens’ guile matches hers stride for stride; it’s nice to see that the pained exhaustion he brought to recent roles (Children of Men, The International) gets replaced here with a low-key grace and charm reminiscent of Cary Grant’s romantic thrillers from the 1950’s. 

Giamatti, all smug arrogance and nervous tics, provides no match for Wilkinson’s pedantic corporate aristocrat, but both are sufficiently villainous to deflect the audience’s attention from the fact that it’s cheering for a pair of felonious lovers whose success ought to result in long prison sentences. The rest of the cast is comprised of  faces familiar from so many other Hollywood films you could be excused for thinking your attending a family reunion; they’re uniformly fine.     

The verdict? If you’re in the mood for two hours of nifty repartee between two of Hollywood’s most attractive stars and the sexual chemistry they generate on screen, this one won’t disappoint.

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