Duplicity is a really cool movie. See it with someone you’re not entirely sure that you trust. It’s not so much a romantic comedy inside of a spy thriller, but rather a romantic comedy played out as a spy thriller. Everything that happens in this movie begins and ends with the fact that the two leads, perhaps against their better judgment, love each other. It’s really kinda sweet, I guess, but it’s all so clever, crafty, and genuinely wicked that you may not notice. Regardless, though, you ought to have a great time.
The film is written and directed by Tony Gilroy and is his second directorial feature after being nominated for an Oscar for his terrific 2007 film Michael Clayton. Gilroy’s been around for awhile, but really made a name for himself penning the scripts for all three films in the Bourne franchise, which everyone else but me seemed to really like. Personally, I think he has handled filming his writing a lot better than any other directors have. After seeing Michael Clayton and Duplicity, it’s clear to see that Gilroy has more of a careful touch to the complexity his plots then the more action-focused Doug Liman (Bourne Identity) and Paul Greengrass (Bourne Supremacy and Ultimatum) had. The Bourne films wound up, to me, being more muddled, confused, and boring. In Duplicity especially, Gilroy knows that the twisting, turning nature of the plot is half the fun and half the point and makes sure that you’re soaking up every second of it.
I’m hesitant to give a synopsis, as I feel like this is a film where the spoilers start coming right after the opening credits. Before that, however, we meet Ray Koval (Clive Owen) and Claire Stenwick (Julia Roberts) at an Independence Day party at the American Consulate in Dubai. They steal glances at each other from across the pool and Ray walks over to drown her in his suave Englishman charm. They exchange some terrific dry dialogue and wind up in bed together. After their night of passion, Claire wakes up, drugs Ray, ransacks his personal documents and leaves.
And cue the opening credits sequence, which rivals that of Watchmen for the best credits sequence playing in theaters right now. Set to some very jazzy Ocean’s Eleven-type music, we watch in stunning silent slow-motion as two major corporate big-wigs, both played outstandingly by Paul Giamatti and Tom Wilkinson respectively, exit their private jets on the same runway. They start small with the simple yelling of obscenities at each other from across the way and slowly elevate to light shoving, shin-kicking, face-slapping, and ultimately strangling as onlookers of yes-men watch in terror. It’s probably the most deliberately farcical gag that the movie pulls and it’s done so with terrific mastery. I nearly lost control with laughter during these moments.
Cut to five years after Ray and Claire’s little Fourth-of-July run-in. Ray is working for Omnikrom, the corporation headed by Dick Garsick (Giamatti), and Claire works for Burkett & Randle, headed by Howard Tully (Wilkinson). Ray is sent to Grand Central Station to meet with Omnikrom’s contact from B&R, who he is shocked to discover is none other than Claire. When he meets up with her he hits her with his obviously rehearsed revenge speech, calling her out for what she did to him five years ago in Dubai. The two do a bit of catching up, exchanging some more witty banter before getting down to business.
What she’s there to give Ray is a draft of a speech to be made by Tully to his employees, announcing that a top-secret innovation is in the works that will change the world once unleashed to the masses. Once Omnikrom has the information, Garsick’s researchers are immediately at work to find out what the product is and secure the patent right under B&R’s nose before they have a chance to announce it. But Ray and Claire, who have found themselves to be madly, recklessly in love with one another, have other plans.
But, friends, there’s far more here than meets the eye and to really let this movie lure you in appropriately, I feel like I should stop right there. I feel I’ve said too much already, although I’ve certainly omitted some things and deliberately misled you a bit. However that seems appropriate for writing an accurate review of this film. Using the backdrop of a spy thriller, Gilroy begs the question, how can you ever fully trust someone else? The constantly shifty plot of Duplicity tinkers with chronology, painting a wry and charming romance between these two who will sadly never be able to live life like a normal couple. Claire and Ray love each other. Don’t they? Or are they playing each other?
It’s understandable that they both wish to solve this problem and make that question obsolete, and hence cook up their plot. As the cold war between Omnikrom and Burkett & Randle heats up more and more, Claire and Ray are busy trying to bring an end to their own private cold war of mistrust and subtle one-upsmanship. By their logic, once they’re both rolling in insurmountable wealth they should be able to rest easy, knowing that there couldn’t possibly be anything left that the other is secretly after. It seems money can buy love after all. Or trust, anyway.
The movie is one giant trust issue on the verge of explosion. No one in the movie trusts anyone–and they shouldn’t–and because of the way in which Gilroy constructs the story, he ensures that the audience never trusts anything they’re seeing, which is all part of the fun. There’s something boldly Hitchcockian about the crafty and suspicious nature of the story and Gilroy churns out a few sequences–one in particular comes to mind and you’ll know it when you see it–that nail you right to the edge of your seat.
Clive Owen and Julia Roberts both bring their best stuff to the table here, reteaming after starring together in Mike Nichol’s Closer. Owen, in particular I enjoyed. Given his previous work, he doesn’t initially strike you as much of a comedic actor (until you’ve seen Shoot ‘Em Up maybe), but finds some leg room to work in some great subtle laughs. Roberts is here just kinda doing her Julia Roberts thing, and I mean that in a good way. She’s smart, charming, and fun and that’s just what this movie calls for. These are characters who we could easily hate, but somehow we don’t. They both evoke classic Hollywood so wonderfully, you could swear they were both channeling Cary Grant. Paul Giamatti and Tom Wilkinson, as I mentioned before, are both absolutely tremendous and Giamatti in particular keeps the comedic heart of the film ticking even when you’re wrapped up in all the complexities. Wilkinson (who worked with Gilroy on Michael Clayton and was nominated for an Oscar for it) has a little less screentime than Giamatti, but each time he’s there, Gilroy knows to make it count.
This is a terrificly smart and frequently funny little picture that plays the audience while playing the characters, twisting and turning with effortless ease. Before I’d seen it, I had to defend the notion of this film to a lot of people who said it would suck. I looked at its pedigree and I considered the premise and I begged otherwise and I was proven absolutely right. I never really saw a full trailer, but I’d heard about its development stages and was ultimately a little surprised when the first TV spot I saw painted it as more of a comedy. And that it absolutely is, but there’s also much more here and it’s anything but dismissable. It questions the nature of trust in life, business, and love while never undermining it or slapping it in the face. In the end, it does give us some peace of mind (depending on how you look at it) but maybe not quite in the way you’d expect. The last shot of this film (not unlike the last shot of Michael Clayton) is pure gold. Tony Gilroy, you are two for two, sir. Keep ‘em coming.