Tony Gilroy is back with the same whip-smart ear for dialogue that helped make Michael Clayton one of the more acclaimed films of the last few years and another ridiculously talented ensemble working on all cylinders to produce the light, breezy, enjoyable Duplicity. After the intense mystery of Clayton, Gilroy has produced its mirror image in a con game that feels like a throwback to an era of charismatic, world-hopping and be-hopping mysteries (like Charade) that they just don't make that often any more. Duplicity falls short of Clayton and some its own potential due to a typical problem of modern cinema – issues with length – but Clive Owen and Julia Roberts haven't been this easygoing and charming in years, and it's simply a pleasure to hear adult dialogue come out of the mouths of grown-ups in a mainstream film. Yes, believe it or not, there are writers and actors still willing to use "big words" and tell stories that you need to pay attention to if you have any hope of following. Tony Gilroy and Duplicity are always a step ahead of their audience and, if you like trying to play intellectual catch-up with a film that you know will actually have a quality pay-off, Duplicity could be your highlight of the season
It's hard to get too deep into the plot of Duplicity without giving part of it away. The primary joy of Gilroy's screenplay is in how he reveals each twist and turn, layering the film with flashbacks that illuminate exactly what's going on in the present-day scenes. So I will walk carefully through just the set-up for Duplicity. No major spoilers here. Trust me. I would never con you.
Tom Wilkinson and Paul Giamatti play Howard Tully and Richard Garsik, respectively, the CEOs of two major, Halliburton-sized companies brilliantly named Burkett & Randle and Omnikrom. What do their companies do? Everything. And, in the race to beat the other one to the next great product, they have entire departments devoted to stopping (and maybe committing a little) corporate espionage. Clive Owen, finally getting another role that proves why he was once considered as a James Bond candidate, plays former MI6 agent Ray Koval, an expert spy who now works for Garsik, trying to figure out what Tully's next move will be. In a hidden room, they monitor emails, copy machines, and even go as far as to hack into security cameras and bank accounts to try and figure out what’s next for B&R. Luckily, Koval and his team (including great character actors Denis O'Hare and Kathleen Chalfant) have a mole on the other side in former CIA agent/current Burkett employee Claire Stenwick (Julia Roberts), who also happens to have a history and possibly a present with Ray. And this is honestly just the tip of the spy/mystery/con iceberg.
Duplicity is the lighter side of Michael Clayton in that Gilroy is once again interested in how big business and the talented individuals who keep it running work. But this is much frothier fare. Gilroy opens his film with a seduction, a double-crossing, and a rain-soaked, slow-motion fight before the credits have even rolled. He's clearly having a blast with every moment of Duplicity and it's rubbed off on the entire ensemble. Owen hasn't been this enjoyable in years, flashing a smile and a laugh that makes it easy to see why Roberts would fall for him. Of course, the inverse is true as well with Roberts actually going very subtle, reining in that killer smile and laugh to play a woman who you're never quite sure has fallen in love or is just pretending to have done so.
Gilroy's screenplay is one of those puzzles that piles twist on twist and keeps the audience guessing until the final frame, but it never gets too complex for its own good. To break up the pace of the corporate espionage and to tell the whole story, Gilroy is forced to flash back regularly to several encounters in gorgeous locales (that off-set the New York present-day action perfectly). As the film stretched past the two-hour mark, I felt like there was at least one flashback and one corporate speech too many, which may not sound like a big complaint, but a film like Duplicity needs to be perfectly crafted to go from good to great. As any spy will tell you, the plan can't have any holes if you expect it to go off without a hitch.
It may not be as perfectly paced or edited as it could have been, but there's still plenty to like about Duplicity including two of our most charming actors proving why they deserve that title, two of our better supporting actors (Giamatti and Wilkinson) continuing to rock, and one of our best writers once again producing something even rarer than honest CEOs – intellectual entertainment.
Rating: THREE BONES
Reviewed by Brian Tallerico (MovieRetriever.com Film Critic)
Release Date: March 20th, 2009
Starring: Clive Owen, Julia Roberts, Tom Wilkinson, and Paul Giamatti
Director: Tony Gilroy
Writer: Tony Gilroy