Duplicity is a different kind of spy thriller. It’s a romantic comedy about espionage. Imagine if Rock Hudson and Doris Day had starred in Mission Impossible and you get the idea. Written and directed by Tony Gilroy, it stars Julia Roberts and Clive Owen—last seen on-screen together in 2004’s Closer—as romantically involved former secret agents who play a dangerous, sexy game with corporate secrets. It plays as high stakes screwball comedy with intrigue or Michael Clayton with laughs. Take your pick.
Roberts is Claire Stenwick, an experienced CIA officer looking for a change. Owen is MI6 agent Ray Koval, a charmer who can’t remember anyone’s name. Both have left the world of international intrigue for the infinitely more profitable task of corporate security. Together they launch an elaborate plan of corporate dirty tricks to steal a top secret formula that will revolutionize the cosmetics industry. As the plot thickens so do their feelings for one another, but the question remains, can people trained in duplicity ever truly trust one another? “Nobody trusts anyone,” says Ray, “we just cope to it.”
Told using flashbacks and stylish editing Duplicity is more interesting for its flashy look and interesting characters than it is for its jigsaw puzzle of a story. On the surface it is all flash; it has a very Ocean’s 11 vibe. There’s beautiful set design, effervescent camera moves, showy split screen effects and enough international settings to keep your eye entertained, which is a good thing because the wandering story of intrigue is too clever by half to be really engrossing. It’s a story that curves back into itself constantly throughout, leaving the audience wondering who they can trust—if anyone at all.
That’s a bit of a problem in a story that develops into a romance. The give-and-take interplay between Ray and Claire is funny the first time, cute the second time, but by their third and fourth “trust issues” discussion it wears a bit thin.
Luckily for us director Gilroy has done a great job of casting interesting actors. Owen and Roberts are witty and charming and more than capable of carrying the movie but the whole thing would sink like a stone without a distinguished supporting cast. With so many characters, double crosses and story threads to juggle it’s important for the filmmaker to present well defined but varied actors to help us keep things straight. Leading the supporting cast are Paul Giamatti and Tom Wilkinson as the cutthroat, competitive CEOs. Both make the guys who ran Enron look like humanitarians, and both are great fun. Other stand-outs include Broadway star Kathleen Chalfant as an undercover investigator and Dennis O’Hare as the giddy black ops expert Duke.
With its fun performances and stylish look Duplicity is a bit of fun despite its overlong running time and convoluted story.