A film review by Craig J. Koban

DUPLICITY jjj
½ 

2009, PG-13, 125 mins.

Claire: Julia Roberts / Ray: Clive Owen / Howard: Tom Wilkinson / Richard: Paul Giamatti / Jeff: Tom McCarthy / Duke: Denis O'Hare

Written and directed by Tony Gilroy

Tony Gilroy was the real star of 2007’s brilliantly constructed MICHAEL CLAYTON, which marked his first foray into both writing and directing a motion picture.  It was a finely tuned and terrifically auspicious novice directorial outing, which may not have been so surprising seeing that his previous screenplay credits, including the well oiled and compelling scripts for the JASON BOURNE Trilogy.  MICHAEL CLAYTON was such an atypical modern thriller for the way it so successfully approximated all of the subtle and discrete details of the best paranoid, political potboilers of the 1970’s.  What I loved so much about CLAYTON was how assured and confident Gilroy was at crafting a fearsomely dense and convoluted tail of corporate malfeasance and intrigue. 

DUPLICITY shows off more of the same of the talented and inventive filmmaker, and as much as he tried to make a neo-political thriller with stylistic trappings of decades past, he has also gone for appropriating the tone and style of another genre of yesteryear: the classic rom-com mixed with the spy thriller.  Certainly, DUPLICITY definitely does not resonate as deeply or as heartfelt as MICHAEL CLAYTON did, but it certainly is a work that is brimming with catchy and rapid fire dialogue, beautifully lush cinematography, a jazzy and jovial soundtrack, and a wickedly non-linear storyline that takes much needed pot shots at corporate culture (the easiest and most politically correct villains by our current standards) and the intelligence trade. 

 Much more than his rookie effort, DUPLICITY is most certainly designed with a style over substance aesthetic, but considering the skill and finesse that Gilroy has over the material, DUPLICITY emerges as superiorly polished espionage romantic thriller where the craft involved can be seen and easily savored.  Not only that, but it wholeheartedly succeeds in one distinct arena: it’s a real show-off vehicle for two enormously appealing mega-stars in the industry to forge intense and sizzling chemistry between each other by engaging in scene after scene of edgy, quick witted, and flirtatiously spunky dialogue.     

To say that Gilroy’s presence gets somewhat lost amidst DUPLICITY's huge main stars in kind of a silly understatement.  I came out of the film truly respecting its cunning and slick artifice, to be sure, but…c’mon…this film essentially exists as an exhibition of its two mega celebrities, Julie Roberts and Clive Owen, who verbally fence with one another with an impeccable timing and a decent grasp for lightweight comedy.  This is not the first on-screen pairing for the two (look at 2004’s deeply sorrowful and emotionally wrenching CLOSER), but instead of playing scenes that are raw and emotionally animalistic, they instead find themselves in more playful and jovial dramatic waters in DUPLICITY.  That is not to say that the film is a cheap, disposable, and meager entertainment, but there is an uplifting joy in seeing the highly effective tandem here.  In classic rom-com fashion, they have the meet-cute, fall in love, fall out of love, fall back in love, trust each other, then don’t trust each other, and…even worse…they’re both spies…which only amps up their growing ambivalence with trusting each other.  

Love ain't easy, folks..

DUPLICITY opens on a trendy, but very funny, moment.   Shot deeply in super slow motion (which manages to heighten the comedy to surreal levels), we see two corporate tycoons, both played with a gnarly, fist clenched antagonism by Paul Giamatti and Tom Wilkinson, getting out of their jets to confront one another.  We never hear what they say, but it’s clear that they’re arguing, which turns quickly into a spitting and shoving match and then finally into an all out millionaire dogfight.  I especially liked the fiery intensity of this opening montage, which uses images and not words to display the pair’s wicked hostility to one another (not only that, but it’s also an unmitigated hoot to see).  Both men are the heads of competing beauty empires that are always trying to get one step ahead of the other.  They battle over a MacGuffin, of sorts, which would spell economic doom to the one of them if the other had it, and when it is finally revealed very late in the story, you can kind of understand why these two bitter and volatile men would stop at nothing to have it.  

And I mean nothing

The film then dives into the story of two former spies that meet, fall in love, and find themselves embroiled with the two mega-businessmen previously mentioned.  Beginning five years in the past in Rome, we have the first infamous meeting between CIA operative Claire Stenwick (Roberts) and MI-6 agent Ray Kovel (Owen, making his second non-James Bond appearance in a spy-related flick after this year’s very decent THE INTERNATIONAL).  After the obligatory night in the sack between the two that ends awkwardly for one, we flash forward to the present in New York where both Claire and Ray find themselves retired from the spy biz and working in the private sector for Equikrom and Burkett and Randall respectively.  Ray works as an industrial espionage expert for Equikrom and Claire is the director of security for Burkett ad Randall, but we soon learn that she is actually a mole at her place of business with Ray being her handler.  It becomes clear that both of them have hatched a fiendishly complicated and highly lucrative plan to embezzle a fortune from both giants, but definitely not without some serious setbacks all along the way. 

I don’t want to say much more about the overall plot to DUPLICITY, which would surely spoil all of the fun, but I will say that the film is surprisingly dense and complicated; you never really feel like you are always one step ahead of either main character.  Gilroy keeps everything skillfully afloat by using a non-linear storytelling approach to fracture the narrative, which serves the purpose of allowing viewers to try to put all of the pieces of the film’s story puzzle together to make sense of it all.  We don’t get everything slavishly thrown at us going from point A to B and finally to C, but rather Gilroy starts in the present and very astutely and carefully gives us past incidents via flashbacks to slowly give us a broader picture of the entire plot.  The film is most assuredly not one that invites frequent bathroom breaks, but it’s undoubtedly not too confusing or chaotically constructed for viewers to not have any clue of what’s happening.  Double crosses occur upon double crosses, which permeate into triple crosses, etc., but the riches of the presentation primarily stems from the fact that Gilroy keeps everything moving briskly.  The film joyously dives into its labyrinthine story and even takes greater pleasure of pulling the rug from under our feat in a well executed final twist, which it amazingly manages to hide throughout. 

The plot is compelling and involving, but Gilroy also has more tricks up his sleeves, like using THERE WILL BE BLOOD’s cinematographer, Robert Elswit, who captures some of the more superbly low-key elements of the film (some of the film’s most simplest of shots ironically seem the most calibrated and keenly orchestrated).  Gilroy also makes use of split screens at times, which serves as a nifty visual reminder to viewers when the film is traversing both back and forward in time (thankfully, this technique is not used to teeth-grating and distracting levels; Gilroy is too smart to let style completely overwhelm the story and characters).  DUPLICITY is kind of an oddly compelling film that, paradoxically enough, feels very stylish without engaging in camera mugging and pompous excess.  The best accolade to bestow upon Gilroy is that he understands the virtues of restraint with the camera and editing. 

Yet, everyone leaving the theatre will come out remembering the intuitive and easy-going chemistry between Roberts and Owen, who make their on-going struggles to understand and trust one another DUPLICITY’s most sinfully delightful trait.  The interplay and especially the dialogue, the latter which has a crackling and lightning fast wit and symmetry, is a pure delight in the film, and seeing this exquisite pair become embroiled in a feisty mental battle of wits and words is worth the admission price alone (a sly moment cat 'n mouse battle of words involving a G-string is a high point). Two scenes in particular involving them separated from one another are the film’s best: In the first we see Owen – using a lot of goofy charm and charisma  – attempt to adopt a thick Texas accent to seduce a naïve cosmetic employee (the wonderfully spirited and funny Carrie Preston) and the second shows Roberts’ Claire later interrogating the same woman, during which she reveals her one night sexual fling with Owen and how much she loved every minute of it.  Clearly, Owen’s character used this woman for the betterment of his mission with Claire, but just watch how Roberts plays festering anger, robust jealousy, and introverted rage by being in the scene without uttering a syllable, in complete silence.  The actress has never come off as so coldly vengeful and spiteful: it’s a textbook example of how less is more in a performance. 

DUPLICITY is another sublimely self-assured film in Tony Gilroy’s directorial playbook, but it’s not as faultless as his previous masterstroke, MICHAEL CLAYTON.  DUPLICITY stumbles somewhat in the final legs of its story, with perhaps one too many double crosses for its own good, which may have the negative impact of polarizing those in the audience that find Gilroy’s constantly modulating and time shifting narrative an arduous endurance test (at 125 minutes, the film also could have been a bit leaner and meaner if it were cut to a shorter length).  Regardless of these nitpicky faults, DUPLICITY is a consistently enjoyable and involving romantic comedy/spy-espionage heist thriller that knows how to make use of its million dollar assets to the best possible degree.   It's one of those rare films where its star power alone is one of the chief architects for its success, and seeing Clive Owen and Julia Roberts mischievously banter back and forth throughout it, creating characters we root for and like, is something that not all actors can pull off so smoothly.  Trust me.

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