Film Review: Duplicity

Star power of Julia Roberts and Clive Owen and yummy locations fail to compensate for madly confounding but lighter-than-air story.

The first question among many posed by Duplicity is whether filmmaker Tony Gilroy, who scripted the Bourne franchise and other adaptations before making a stunning directorial bow with the oh-so-clever, Oscar-nominated legal thriller Michael Clayton, escapes the sophomore curse with this glossy follow-up. Well, maybe not…Duplicity raises too many other questions about its tricky, time-scrambled, dressed-up narrative. Just a few of these are: Why are we given so many disorienting flashbacks? Why do the lovers slip into the same “I don’t remember you” repartee every time they reunite? And what’s with that scene in the bowling alley with the corporate honcho disguised as Joe Six-Pack?

It’s great, however, to have the consummately assured Julia Roberts back onscreen and also be afforded a scrubbed-up, debonair Clive Owen, who recently appeared as a sour and unkempt blur in The International. The two portray an adventurous, amorous, sophisticated, tough duo not unlike the playful lovebirds of Trouble in Paradise, the 2005 Mr. and Mrs. Smith, and the Thin Man series.

Whereas Gilroy’s brilliant Michael Clayton was a savage and earnest evisceration of the legal world by way of a corporate law firm and its working-class fixer, Duplicity, which needed to be funnier than it is, returns to the corporate world but with a much lighter tone.

The tone, telegraphed by James Newton Howard’s showy score, is set early as two warring corporate titans—Burkett & Randle’s Howard Tully (Tom Wilkinson) and über-rival Omnikrom’s CEO Dick Garsik (Paul Giamatti) get into a droll tangle on the tarmac near their corporate jets.

Getting physical in another way, CIA operative Claire (Roberts) and MI6 agent Ray (Owen) “meet cute” in Dubai and have an affair which continues as they cross paths in other far-flung destinations. Eventually, these government intelligence drones realize that they can bag a whole lot more money by going private. Claire and Ray cut their government ties and take jobs at the dueling corporate giants, Claire under the eyes of cunning and smooth industry titan Tully and Ray with the scrappy Garsik, an unsubtle fighter of the Enron kind. Needless to say, the two newly recruited corporate spies are actually working for each other in the fierce race for a valuable formula.

In one suspenseful scene, Ray and his cronies race to get a copy of the formula to Claire before they are discovered. A seemingly victorious Garsik greets hundreds of his stockholders in Zurich with news that the company will be developing that most-coveted product. But a big twist looms, and in its aftermath Claire and Tony emerge both losers and winners.

The wise-ass, cynical, impossibly cool main characters have zero dimensions beyond being great to look at and occasionally amusing to listen to. They, like the audience, are forever wondering, “Who’s playing whom?” Timing also does not work in the film’s favor. These days, it’s not easy to find anything about high-level corporate hi-jinx comical.

Armchair travelers will delight in this handsome production’s spin from the mighty corporate towers of Manhattan to Dubai, Rome, London, Zurich Miami and the Bahamas. But those who want to understand Duplicity will have to make return trips.