23 March 2009
In Duplicity, writer-director Tony Gilroy's follow-up to his superb Michael Clayton (2007), nothing is what it seems. Always keep that in mind as twists and double crosses are doled out at every turn. It plays like a more sophisticated Ocean's Eleven, the extra heft coming from its corporate setting.
The lead roles of former MI6 operative Ray Koval and ex-CIA agent Claire Stenwick all but but cry out for movie stars, and Clive Owen and Julia Roberts fit the bill. The movie is at its best when they share the screen. There is an old Hollywood charm and chemistry to their verbal sparring, the banter and energy between them sizzling.
Roberts has appeared mostly in supporting roles this decade, so seeing her in a star turn now feels fresh again. Owen plays everything so slick and smooth that when he's rattled it's enough to do the same to the audience.
Ray and Claire first encounter each other at a 2003 Fourth of July party in Dubai, when both are still employed by their respective agencies. They flirt, go back to Ray's hotel room, yada yada yada, Ray ends up drugged and, in his opinion, left for dead. Something about some super-secret information he had and the CIA wanted.
Fast-forward to the present. Ray is now employed by a pharmaceutical company engaged with a rival in a bitter product development war. His outfit has planted a mole in the other company, a mole who just happens to be Claire. Ray confronts her; she plays dumb.
Flash back a couple years to Rome, where the two spies also meet. Ray confronts her, they have the exact same conversation we saw in New York and end up spending a magical weekend together. Something is clearly up here. But what?
The movie spends the rest of its running time providing a convoluted answer. The fractured structure allows Gilroy to parcel out information slowly and not play his entire hand until the end. He walks a fine line between intriguing and confusing his audience. He succeeds in his balancing act, much like he did in Michael Clayton.
Duplicity is aimed at adults—or people with attention spans long enough to stick with it until the payoff. Especially in the early scenes, Gilroy requires that the audience pay attention, as he does not spell out everything immediately. I respect a filmmaker who respects my intelligence.
The strong supporting cast includes a pair of great actors as the CEOs of the two rival companies—Tom Wilkinson and Paul Giamatti. After having worked with him on Michael Clayton, I wouldn't be surprised if Gilroy wrote the role of Howard Tally specifically for Wilkinson; the speeches seem tailor-made for him.
Duplicity is fun without being breezy. It's ultimately meaningless, but there are stakes—maybe not for us, but there are for the characters—and the actors play it as such. It operates in a different genre than Michael Clayton, yet clearly bears its auteur's fingerprints—an encouraging sign for Gilroy's future.
(Rated PG-13 for language and some sexual content. 125 minutes.)