Duplicity (United States/Germany, 2009)

March 20, 2009
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Duplicity Poster

When it comes to spy thrillers, Tony Gilroy knows the game. The formula for a crackling entry into this genre is simple enough: keep the action moving and the twists coming, then engage in one late innings sleight of hand that pulls the rug out from under everything. Gilroy, with an adroitness Hitchcock might admire, works admirably in this arena, turning in a screenplay that's more diabolical and pulpy than his convoluted directorial debut, Michael Clayton, but no less fun. He maximizes his assets, and considering the wattage of his stars, they are considerable. Although one could not consider the plot for Duplicity to be air-tight, the holes are small enough for things to remain afloat until after the proceedings have ended. A post-movie dissection on the way home in the car will reveal some obvious plotting problems.

For Julia Roberts (who seems to be in semi-retirement) and Clive Owen, this is a much different sort of movie than their previous on-screen collaboration, Closer. The tone is lighter and the chemistry changes to match. Instead of searing and raw, it's playful and romantic. One of the keys to the production working is for audiences to believe their characters are evenly matched and, by virtue of actions and words, this is evident. Their duels are via dialogue, not guns, and their weapons are words. Roberts and Owen provide characters who clearly love one another but do not trust each other. That's the way it is in the spy business, where trust is the quickest way to failure.

Duplicity opens five years ago in Rome with the first meeting between CIA operative Claire Stenwick (Roberts) and MI-6 agent Ray Koval (Owen). The liaison doesn't last long and Ray ends up on the short end. Skip ahead to today in New York City, where Claire and Ray are about to meet again. By now, they have graduated to the private sector. Ray is an industrial espionage expert working for Equikrom. Claire is a director of security for Equikrom's rival, Burkett & Randle. (Think of this corporate battle as akin to the one between Procter & Gamble and Johnson & Johnson.) However, as we soon learn, she's a Equikrom mole and her new "handler" is Ray. All is not as it seems (of course), with the possibility that Ray and Claire may be playing a game beyond the parameters of their jobs - a game that is endangered when Ray takes things a little too far "in the line of duty."

James Bond and Jason Bourne notwithstanding, espionage movies have fallen into disfavor since the collapse of the Soviet Union, which is something of a shame since, when well-written, they can provide a superlative source of suspense. Duplicity proves that, even without the U.S.S.R., there are still ways to develop spy thrillers since companies guard trade secrets as jealously as nations protect their national security. With the element of death removed from the equation, the stakes are less intense than they might have been in a traditional Cold War thriller, and there are times when Duplicity feels more like a heist movie than a spy thriller. Regardless of how one elects to classify it, however, Gilroy knows where to place the pieces on the board and how to move them to deliver maximum entertainment value from the story and to keep the final twist - the one that happens just after the viewer is sure he has everything figured out - effectively camouflaged. (The existence of this twist, by the way, should not be considered a spoiler since it's a requirement of the genre - like horny teenagers in sex comedies, gore in horror movies, and femmes fatale in film noir.)

The plot is actually a little more straightforward than it originally seems, but Gilroy uses a non-linear storytelling approach to obfuscate various plot elements. Instead of taking us from point A to point B in a strictly chronological fashion, he keeps things pretty much in the present, unveiling past incidents via carefully placed flashbacks. Duplicity's storyline isn't as dense or difficult to follow as that of some thrillers, but it will reward those who pay attention. A mid-movie trip to the snack bar could result in a prolonged period of confusion upon returning.

Duplicity is an unpretentious pleasure, combining as it does the deft plotting of Gilroy, the unforced acting of charismatic stars Roberts and Owen (not to mention nice turns by supporting performers Tom Wilkenson and Paul Giamatti as the rival CEOs of Burkett & Randle and Equikrom), and the suspense inherent in this sort of motion picture. No one is going to rank Duplicity among the great espionage thrillers or heist movies but, for those who don't put unreasonable demands on the picture, it's a fun way to spend a couple of hours.

Duplicity (United States/Germany, 2009)

Director: Tony Gilroy
Cast: Clive Owen, Julia Roberts, Tom Wilkenson, Paul Giamatti
Screenplay: Tony Gilroy
Cinematography: Robert Elswit
Music: James Newton Howard
U.S. Distributor: Universal Pictures
Run Time: 2:05
U.S. Release Date: 2009-03-20
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Sexual Situations, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1