Julia Roberts is one of the biggest female movie stars of all time. With a career box office north of $2 billion she, and her megawatt smile, were the stuff of blockbusters throughout the 90s and early 2000s. She was everywhere, and then, somewhere around the time Jennifer Lawrence was celebrating her thirteenth birthday Roberts stepped away. Not completely, but she jumped off the Hollywood treadmill, doing what movie stars who have nothing left to prove do.
That is, whatever she wanted. She stayed out of view, voicing a couple of animated movies and popping up in the occasional film, some high profile—like the ensemble of Ocean’s Twelve—some not—like Fireflies in the Garden—but the days of solo Pretty Woman-esque success were, by her own choosing, behind her. By and large her choices became a bit more eclectic as she relied less on the famous smile and more on flexing her acting muscles. Since 2004’s Closer her filmography has been splintered between crowd pleasers like Eat Pray Love, dramas like August: Osage County and misfires like Secret in Their Eyes.
This weekend she’s back working with the director who helped make her famous starring in Mother’s Day, her fourth collaboration with filmmaker Garry Marshall. The pair make a movie roughly every ten years, from 1990’s Pretty Woman to Runaway Bride in 1999 to 2010’s Valentine’s Day to this year’s entry, and their combo usually delivers big box office.
In between her the commercial films she makes with Marshall, Roberts makes a movie a year and while they haven’t always connected with audiences many are worth a look.
Duplicity is a romantic comedy about espionage. Imagine if Rock Hudson and Doris Day starred in Mission Impossible. Instead you have Roberts as an experienced CIA officer looking for a change and Clive Owen as a charming MI6 agent. Both 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. Roberts and Owen are witty and charming and Duplicity, with its entertaining performances and stylish look, is a bit of fun despite its convoluted story.
August: Osage County, an all-star remounting of Tracey Letts’s hit Broadway play, gives Roberts her juiciest role in years. As Barbara she’s a bit of an enigma. She’s a jumble of mixed, complicated emotions, capable of both great kindness and compassion but able only to express herself through tough love. When she explodes she lets loose a lifetime of rage stemming from her mother’s (played by Meryl Streep) mistreatment. When they go head-to-head it is the clash of the titans and an unforgettable scene.
Finally, there’s Larry Crowne, a boomer comedy aimed at audiences with memories long enough to remember when gas only cost 54 cents a litre, none of your neighbours had foreclosure signs on their front lawns and Tom Hanks and Roberts ruled the box office. It’s an uplifting comedy about middle age, brave enough to tackle modern problems like downsizing and foreclosure, but non-challenging enough to weave all the bad stuff into a pseudo romantic comedy. Hanks and Roberts cut through the material like hot knives through butter and Julia treats audiences to one of her trademarked laughing scenes.
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.