Movie Review: Duplicité
By Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune Movie Critic
"Duplicity" opens with a scene, shot in horrified slow motion, of corporate tycoons Paul Giamatti and Tom Wilkinson arguing and then wrestling and then punching each other on a rainy airport tarmac, while their slack-jawed employees wonder what has become of American business practices. Nothing duplicitous here: These men want each other's hearts on a platter. Writer-director Tony Gilroy makes this audaciously weird intro genuinely funny. I thought so, anyway. And if you do too, you'll probably enjoy "Duplicity" even as its narrative starts coiling around itself like a snake.
Two years ago Gilroy's "Michael Clayton" reminded audiences of the satisfaction an elaborately plotted, highly polished star vehicle can provide. Now Gilroy has directed his second feature, which attempts - and to a surprising degree, succeeds - to pour a classic vintage, the kind Ernst Lubitsch served in his ravishing 1932 comedy about jewel thieves in love, "Trouble in Paradise, " into a 21st-century bottle.
"Duplicity" is pure artifice, without any moral reckoning or higher intentions. Mainly it's a classy excuse to hang out with Julia Roberts and Clive Owen and their wardrobes for a couple of hours, as their dueling corporate spies puzzle through the puzzle and figure out what is this thing, this funny thing, called love.
The Teeth and The Cool were last seen together in the film version of "Closer," a nasty bit of relational goods. "Duplicity" is more lighthearted; it's the Pitt/Jolie smackdown "Mr. & Mrs. Smith" without all the gunplay. As with "Michael Clayton," Gilroy plays around with flashbacks and narrative loops, starting out in 2008, then jumping back to Dubai in 2003. There, Owen's Ray Koval, a British intelligence operative, spots Roberts' CIA spy Claire Stenwick at a consulate party. They're both there to steal some Egyptian Air Defense codes; after a luxurious roll in the nearest hotel-suite hay, Claire steals the goods right out from under the gobsmacked Ray's nose. But he's smitten.
The 2008-set line of action in "Duplicity" finds our spies having gone corporate, working for rival multinational firms headed by Wilkinson and Giamatti. One of these pinstriped, snake-eyed titans appears to have developed a supersecret personal-care product formula the other side's spies are trying to purloin. Gilroy's story has as its hook the old "one last score" routine: Claire and Ray, having lived a wary but sexy global commuter relationship for years, set their sights on zooming their respective firms and running off with the millions.
We are a long, looooong way from the brainlessness of such late-model retreads as, say, "After the Sunset." This is a grown-up movie for grown-ups game for a little sorting-out. (Be prepared for many title cards on the order of "London, 18 months ago.")
The look and sound of "Duplicity" is half the payoff. Cinematographer Robert Elswit has a lovely time swanking it up, making the simplest shots - a key entering a lock, for example - utterly exquisite. Gilroy's technique keeps the contraption jumping, and you appreciate the little things, such as the jump-cut from an elegant London hotel tryst to the world's drabbest industrial park exterior in Dunwoody, Ga. Gilroy's dialogue is punchy even when it's more about atmosphere than forward motion. At one point, Owen, Roberts and Giamatti meet in a bowling alley for some nefarious reason or other. "Any sport that puts a limit on your score - complete waste of time," Giamatti's restless tycoon mutters, ditching his bowling ball.
Partly through overexposure, Owen risks coming off like a well-dressed mannequin in some assignments. Here, able to explore a lighter register, he's great company, and he and Roberts seem to be having a ball. I'd forgotten how much of a movie star Roberts can be, given the right gift-wrapping. She and Owen look as if they belong on screen together.
"Duplicity" stumbles a bit in the final lap, doubling up on the double-crosses. By then, the more literal- and linear-minded segments of the audience may be reeling from Gilroy's shuffle-play storytelling mode. I don't know, maybe it's because life's getting a little ... chaotic, a little ... scattered lately, but the moment-to-moment confusion didn't impede my enjoyment. Gilroy's a crafty writer and an increasingly assured director. And The Teeth and The Cool are up to the game.
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for language and some sexual content).
Running time: 2:05.
Starring: Julia Roberts (Claire Stenwick); Clive Owen (Ray Koval); Tom Wilkinson (Howard Tully); Paul Giamatti (Richard Garsik); Denis O'Hare (Duke Monahan); Kathleen Chalfant (Pam Frales).
Written and directed by Tony Gilroy; produced by Jennifer Fox, Kerry Orent and Laura Bickford. A Universal Studios release.