Director: Tony Gilroy
Starring: Clive Owen, Julia Roberts, Tom Wilkinson, Paul Giamatti
Running Time: 125 min.
★★ (out of ★★★★)
Considering the talent involved in the making of it, Duplicity is a shockingly dumb film. And it's the worst kind of dumb film in that it delusionally thinks it's intelligent. Worse yet, it conveys an attitude of smug self-importance. Almost as if we should be honored to watch two big stars play unlikable characters bickering endlessly about the same issue for over two hours in a needlessly convoluted plot. The movie just spins its wheels telling two converging stories (one personal the other professional) ineffectively. As if that's not bad enough, writer/director Tony Gilroy, in his highly anticipated follow-up to 2008 Best Picture nominee Michael Clayton, actually has the nerve to not deliver on anything he promises, defeating the purpose of the entire film.
Usually, when a movie doesn't work there are at least some things in it that make me feel like I at least haven't totally wasted my time. This is different. Here, there are so many pointless (and often predictable) red herrings that the film seems to be setting itself up to fail unless it can deliver on any of it. That would be tolerable if Gilroy presented this as what it should be (a slick 90-minute crime caper). Instead, he attempts to merge an old fashioned Hollywood screwball comedy, an espionage thriller and an epic romance.
The result is a bloated, self-indulgent vanity project made so its writer can pat himself on the back for writing cool, slick dialogue and to remind us what wonderful stars (notice I said "stars," not "actors") Clive Owen and Julia Roberts are. The sad thing is that they are exceptional actors, but this isn't designed to take advantage of that. It feels like one of those Ocean's movies and if you replaced Owen with Clooney it would be. Is it December yet? This is the kind of film that usually rolls into theaters during Awards season so voters over the age of 70 can cast their votes for safe, inoffensive material starring big names. At least Michael Clayton was exciting...and didn't have a stick up its ass.
The movie opens five years ago in Rome when MI-6 agent Ray Koval (Owen) has a one-night stand with CIA operative Claire Stenwick (Roberts) in which he wakes up the next morning having been drugged and outplayed. Their paths cross again as we cut to present-day New York and both are now working as spies for two rival pharmaceutical companies. Ray is a corporate spy for Equikrom, led by its unpredictable CEO Dick Garsik (Paul Giamatti), while Claire is the head of security for Burkett & Randle, whose CEO Howard Tully (Tom Wilkinson), is sitting on a huge secret that could change lives. Despite their opposing allegiances and a complete mistrust of one another, Ray and Claire make a pact to go into business together in the private sector, a decision primarily based on mutual physical attraction and the potential monetary benefits. What unfolds next is a series of double-crosses, fake double-crosses and twists all built around whether Ray and Claire can trust one other and which side each is actually on. Are their feelings for each other real or is it part of the con? That question grows tiresome when its repeated in scene after scene and situation after situation for 125 minutes. Anyone expecting a big payoff to this elaborate, overwritten and labor-filled set-up will be greatly disappointed.
Owen and Roberts are charismatic and likable leads who share a breezy chemistry. So the movie coasts on it, offering little more. We know from the beginning that Ray and Claire can't trust each other and there's no reason why they should considering both are spies. It's up to Gilroy to sell us on their potential romance, which is difficult because the two characters can't stand one another and continuously throw cranky fits. When they're not doing that they're busy congratulating themselves for delivering cleverly written dialogue that feels and sounds like cleverly written dialogue. Their exchanges are too snappy and movie-like, to the point that they draw more attention to the writer than the actors actually delivering the lines. And it always seems like lines are literally being "delivered." As are the all-too complicated details of the plot, which at times are impossible to follow, even though the story is as simple as can be.
It's tough to pick what Gilroy falters worse with; his tale of corporate espionage in which he can't decide whether this is a farce (Duplicity!) or a dead-serious Hitchcockian thriller or the would-be romance between two lying spies who hate each other which means they really love each other. My vote goes to the espionage portion if only because he makes the screenwriting mistake of introducing a huge SECRET (the contents of which the two companies are battling over), only to reveal it as a huge letdown. It was supposed to be humorous...I think. You can never tell with the film's uneven tone. Gilroy was trying to make about three movies at once and his "twist ending" wasn't just obvious, it was pointless and if you think back on the whole thing, at the end every character is essentially exactly where they started off. Nothing happened.
I don't know what's going on with Owen. After a promising career start he's really found himself in a rut, also starring in this year's equally awful espionage thriller, The International. Here he's playing the familiar role he seems to have mastered lately...himself. Roberts fares much better if only because she's at least cast against type (as she was opposite Owen in 2004's Closer), even if her character is too bitchy and uninteresting for us to care much at all what happens to her. To Roberts' credit though, as she pushes past forty she's much more believable now as a sexy spy than she would have been in her supposed prime. Unlike Owen, she escapes this disaster completely unscathed and reminds us that she's capable of more than she's often given credit for. Wilkinson and Giamatti unsurprisingly impress with what limited screen time they have as the movie definitely could have used more of them. Wilkinson, such an integral part of Clayton's success, is criminally underutilized, hardly appearing at all. The entire film would have been better off if it were just about those two.
Gas is expensive. Movie tickets are expensive. So is soda and popcorn. Paying actors' salaries and promoting a movie is even more expensive. Too much of everyone's money is at stake to deliver a film that accomplishes nothing other than entertaining the director and actors who made it. The leads are appealing, the scenic locales look good and I'm glad everyone seemed to have had a nice time. Now they all should get back to business. Luckily, audiences knew enough to stay away from this and it was released at a time when intelligent adult dramas are bombing left and right. The biggest trick Duplicity attempts is trying to convince us it is one.