They're A Team, Sure, But It's Still Spy Vs. Spy

Julia Roberts, Clive Owen i i

Dangerous Liaisons: Julia Roberts and Clive Owen are spies with a past — and a competitive streak. Andrew Schwartz/Universal Pictures hide caption

itoggle caption Andrew Schwartz/Universal Pictures
Julia Roberts, Clive Owen

Dangerous Liaisons: Julia Roberts and Clive Owen are spies with a past — and a competitive streak.

Andrew Schwartz/Universal Pictures

Duplicity

  • Director: Tony Gilroy
  • Genre: Thriller
  • Running time: 125 minutes

Rated: PG-13 for language and some sexual content

Split Decision?

Kenneth Turan weighs in:

Paul Giamatti, Tom Wilkinson i i

When CEOs Collide: Paul Giamatti and Tom Wilkinson play corporate titans sparring for a coveted formula. Universal Pictures hide caption

itoggle caption Universal Pictures
Paul Giamatti, Tom Wilkinson

When CEOs Collide: Paul Giamatti and Tom Wilkinson play corporate titans sparring for a coveted formula.

Universal Pictures

Twenty minutes pass in the exhausting new comedy thriller Duplicity, then 40, and still there's no sign of a dead body.

Indeed, the movie's most violent scene — a bout of slow-motion fisticuffs between two expensively suited corporate chieftains, immaculately played by Tom Wilkinson and Paul Giamatti — is polished off during the opening credits.

The sound is off, so we don't know what these two toxic assets are yelling at one another, but 'nuff said. In the world according to writer-director Tony Gilroy, swarthy terrorists pursued by world-weary intelligence operatives are so five minutes ago.

Here, as in Gilroy's justly feted Michael Clayton, the slaughter will be internal and Madoff-ian, with a couple of moonlighting spooks thrown in for romantic star power and the occasional faint glimmer of moral scruple.

Julia Roberts and Clive Owen play Claire and Ray, former government spies (she was CIA, he was MI6) who find themselves on opposite sides of an elaborate exercise in corporate espionage as two multinationals race to corner the patent on an elusive new consumer product.

In fact both the product and its promised riches are gravy on the real meat of this struggle to become, as one of the suits crows, "the first and the most." The game's the thing, and screw the shareholders.

Before long Claire and Ray are in on the action, and the only question that remains is whether they're cashing in together or behind one another's backs. Actually, the real question is how many glam capitals of the global village will serve as backdrops for apparently chance meetings between Claire and Ray — who repeat the same lines of dialogue with a meaningful twist in each city, before slipping between the sheets in handsomely upholstered hotel rooms.

Separately, Owen and Roberts are scrumptious: He's buff and hunky, and Roberts has shucked her dewy younger self in favor of a coolly ironic urbanity that recalls Rosalind Russell. Together, though, they generate little carnal heat.

For one thing, Owen is no George Clooney — he's too pent up, too tightly wound even to approach the shambling matinee-idol charm that made Clooney such a perfect partner and foil for Roberts in Ocean's Eleven. For another, Gilroy is no Soderbergh; he lacks both the fluid rhythms and the woozy swoon of Soderbergh's homages to studio romance.

Duplicity is competent and entertaining in its dryly cerebral way. But Gilroy's roots are in the paranoid thrillers of the 1970s, and his idea of a caper — here, as in the enormously successful Bourne trilogy he scripted — is to craft nesting boxes of puzzles for viewers to burrow through to a showy climactic set piece.

If the success of the Bourne franchise has turned Gilroy into a hot property in Hollywood, his radar for the topical theme has anointed him an important-enough reader of the zeitgeist to merit a longish profile in a recent New Yorker, which reveals that Steven Spielberg, an early candidate to direct Duplicity, pulled out because he couldn't get a handle on the labyrinthine storytelling.

Me neither: The endless shifts in place and time gave me a headache, and though there's not a poorly acted scene or a sloppy line of dialogue in the movie, I couldn't muster much concern for any of the characters, least of all Ray and Claire, who seem to be in desperate competition to show us which of them is the more callow and devious. And when the love story itself is tainted by corruption and mistrust, there's nothing for the audience to hang on to.

That may be Gilroy's point, but he seems more interested in outwitting a genre-savvy audience and in topping his own record for twisty plot maneuvers than in saying anything about the gotcha culture of mutual gaming in corporate America. Duplicity is a replica, not a critique of power in corporate America; the movie may look and sound like a lighter-hearted Michael Clayton, but it lacks the one old-fashioned but crucial ingredient that made that film so satisfying — a moral qualm.

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