First things first – where is George Clooney? Duplicity is exactly the kind of battle-of-the-sexes/verbal-sparring-match that he eats for breakfast. Sure, Clive Owen is charming. But he ain’t no Clooney. You would have thought director Tony Gilroy could have roped his Michael Clayton star into his latest feature film. Well, no matter. We’re here now with Owen in British-scoundrel mode, as a former member of MI6 entangled in a web of romance, money and espionage. His foil is a smirk-happy Julia Roberts, who is both a former-fling and former CIA operative. Following their first encounter/tryst in Dubai, she leaves him drugged and unconscious in bed. She probably fake-numbered him too.
Claire Stenwick (Roberts) and Ray Koval (Owen) are thrown together again several years later, seemingly by chance (although in this film, that should be your first clue that something is up). Koval is recruited into a secret team of investigators by Dick Garsik (Giamatti), a nervy, arrogant CEO with a helluva chip on his shoulder. His rival, Howard Tully (a lumbering, ominous Wilkinson) is about to unveil the greatest product in history. Garsik wants to beat him to the punch, but first he needs to find out just what the product is. Luckily, Stenwick has been working under Tully for a year, and is ready to roll-over.
Stenwick and Koval’s relationship is seemingly held together by a thread; it’s no wonder considering what she did to him back in Dubai all those years ago. However, their co-conspirators can’t deny that the former spies are necessary to the project. If they want to pull off their audacious mission, Stenwick and Koval will have to make nice. Perhaps their relationship is not as tenuous as it seems. Maybe they’ve been making nice for the last few years, in hotel rooms around the world. Maybe they’re planning the ultimate triple cross. Or maybe not.
Gilroy’s carefully paced film keeps Roberts and Owen as far apart as possible, except when dancing back through the film’s snaking timeline. They have a plan; then they don’t; then they call it off; then its back on. Was it ever off? Is it really on? Are they playing each other? For what it’s worth, the film is never as confusing as my fevered rhetorical questioning? Tony Gilroy might be the best director around with only two credits to his name, and he knows exactly what he’s doing, even if the audience isn’t quite as fast.
Owen and Roberts are perfectly cast, although at times they feel like supporting players in their own film. That happens when you go up against the great Wilkinson and Giamatti. Owen does display a cheeky roguishness we rarely get to see; however, a former member of the MI6 shouldn’t get tricked as often as Koval does. Roberts gives a nice and quiet (if perhaps unmemorable) performance. It’s her best work since Closer, in which she and Owen swapped barbs of a nastier nature.
Tony Gilroy’s directorial follow up to the phenomenal Michael Clayton is an impressive addition to his short but impressive filmography. Duplicity is an Oceans’-esque romp through the world of corporate sneakery and back-stabbery. The film moves quickly, and manages to uncover the fun and thrills in a subject that probably doesn’t deserve it. Owen and Roberts attempt some old-school Hollywood to-and-fro, and while they don’t quite set the screen on fire, they at least drop a couple of cinders. A shame really that its finale doesn’t quite have the “oh-snap” quality it so desperately attempts to build towards. Oh well. Maybe they’re saving it for a sequel. “Duplicity Deux”.