Posted on Friday, March 20th, 2009 by David Chen
In D.T. Max’s fantastic New Yorker profile on writer/director Tony Gilroy (which you should read only after you’ve seen Duplicity), Max describes how Gilroy is obsessed with the “reversal.” According to Gilroy, “A reversal is just anything that’s a surprise. It’s a way of keeping the audience interested.” As moviegoers, we’ve seen reversals plenty of times; often we’re shown something on screen, then shown the same thing again later in a completely different context, where each of element carries a drastically different significance. Movies like Memento, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Confidence, Ocean’s 11, and even Gilroy’s own Michael Clayton traffic heavily in these moments, and I see them as somewhat of a blessing and a curse. While reversals can make a second-viewing of the film equally enjoyable as the first, I quickly encounter the law of diminishing returns upon subsequent viewings, since by the fifth or sixth time I’ve seen the film, I already understand most of its mysteries. Movies with major reversals are structured in order to maximize the impact of the reversal, so they inevitably lose some of their effectiveness after that element has been revealed.
That being said, those first viewings are an absolute delight. Just as the characters in the film are trying to stay one step ahead of each other, you, the moviegoer, are constantly trying to figure out exactly what each character’s motivations are and whether or not you can really trust the depiction of events on screen. Gilroy’s latest film, Duplicity, is positioned as a corporate espionage thriller with a few double and triple-crosses sprinkled in for good measure, and it thoroughly delivers on this promise. It’s an absolute blast and shows Gilroy at the top of his form, deceiving the audience just as often as the characters in the film are deceiving each other.
Ex-MI6 agent Ray Koval (Clive Owen) and ex-CIA agent Claire Stenwick (Julia Roberts) are playing a dangerous game of corporate espionage. Claire ostensibly works at Burkett & Randle, a Procter & Gable-type multinational company run by Howard Tully (Tom Wilkinson) which is on the brink of a major new product release. However, she’s actually helping to feed secrets to rival firm Equikrom, run by ruthless CEO Dick Garsik (Paul Giamatti). Ray is working with Equikrom to uncover the secret of Burkett & Randle’s new product, but his relationship with Claire may be more complicated than originally believed. As each of them plays a different side in a breathless pursuit for their own ends, the question quickly becomes: “Who exactly is playing who?”
Duplicity has a lot in common with Doug Liman’s 2005 film, Mr. & Mrs. Smith. Both films feature cutthroat rival companies engaged in some sort of gamesmanship, and both feature charismatic leads who struggle to figure out their true feelings for each other (James Newton Howard’s jazzy score for Duplicity even sounds similar to Powell’s Smith score in more than one spot). But while Mr. & Mrs. Smith derived most of its fun from over-the-top shoot outs and chase scenes, Duplicity is a slower burn, gradually upping the stakes and the tension by revealing piece after piece of critical information. Instead of suspense being derived from elaborate assassination set pieces, it’s conveyed through the pursuit of information: The espionage segments of the film are thrilling and exciting, though they require your complete attention to comprehend. Through it all, you get the feeling that Gilroy is totally in control, pulling just the right strings to keep you simultaneously riveted and guessing as to how it’s all going to end.
At the center of the corporate maelstrom are Clive Owen and Julia Roberts, an unlikely couple to be sure. I’ve never been the hugest fan of Roberts, an actress who always seemed enamored with her stardom to a degree that wasn’t commensurate with her talent. Still, I can’t deny that she has great chemistry with Owen here, and despite some occasionally clunky dialogue, the relationship between the two seems completely believable to me. Praise must also be given to the always-great Giamatti and Wilkinson, who play opposite sides of the same corporate coin. Giamatti is irresistible as the desperate CEO of Equikrom who is trying to avert a disastrous coup by Wilkinson’s company; meanwhile, Wilkinson’s calm portrayal of Howard Tully lends a gravitas to his role that contrasts nicely with Garsik’s bombast.
Duplicity plays with time and narrative, flashing back to critical moments in the story that help to illuminate the current events on screen. This structure actually helps to propel the storyline at a brisk pace, and allows the film to maintain momentum despite its 2-hour running time. Still, the movie does seem more concerned with dazzling you with sleight of hand, rather than meaningfully developing the relationship between its two leads. As seen with the main characters in Liman’s Smith, there is something profoundly heartbreaking about two people who possess a deep-seated inability to trust each other. This theme is briefly and effectively touched upon in Duplicity, and while it’s interesting to see its potential, such complexities quickly take a back seat to the driving narrative. For this reason, the movie never really transcends its genre to become something truly memorable, but you’ll most likely be having so much fun that you won’t even notice.
/Film Rating: 8.5 out of 10