"Duplicity" is really two different films.
"Duplicity" is writer/director Tony Gilroy's follow-up to his critically praised "Michael Clayton," a film that took a far more serious approach to the corporate world's inherent shadiness. Taking a lighter and more emotionally resonant approach with this same subject, "Duplicity" succeeds.
"Duplicity" is also a bit of a madcap caper, not too far removed from a Coen Brothers film, and the type of romantic thriller in which you often see Angelina Jolie star these days.
One might argue that Jolie makes for a more convincing femme fatale than does Julia Roberts, and one would be accurate. Where Roberts transcends Jolie's best, however, is humanizing a character to such a degree that even at her modest devious one can't help but be completely and utterly enchanted by her.
I'm sorry. Jolie just can't pull that off.
"Duplicity" follows two spies, Claire (Julia Roberts) and Ray (Clive Owen), first in their roles as political spies then, years later, as corporate spies for rival corporate giants.
Admit it. You chuckled. The idea sounds intriguing...sort of like The Incredibles taking off their superhero suits and entering the real world doing the same exact business.
The problem for Claire and Ray is that, while they outduel each other physically and intellectually for a product secret destined to be a major windfall for their respective employers, they may very well be falling in love.
Roberts and Owen, who sizzled together in the simpler and more satisfying "Closer," nonetheless manifest the sparks one more time as Claire and Ray.
Claire is, as one might expect, a cool, collected and impossibly stylish woman whose beauty is equalled by her intelligence and emotional strength.
Ray, on the other hand, is debonair, in control and, yet, sensitive to just the point that one can see why he and Claire do spark.
While Roberts' Claire may like the femme fatale qualities of a Jolie, she succeeds in bringing Claire alive in a a sort of retro throwback to the early days of these types of films in the 40's and 50's.
Owen shows us, it would seem, what he was trying to do with "The International" and what he might've been like as James Bond, though I'll still take Daniel Craig in that role. Here, however, Owen is stylish, intense, charming and funny all wrapped up in one and his chemistry with Roberts brings to mind that between Clooney and Zeta-Jones in "Intolerable Cruelty."
Unfortunately, Tony Gilroy doesn't seem to have learned a lesson from his first film, "Michael Clayton." While "Michael Clayton" worked, it was largely on the strength of Clooney's performance and the Oscar-nominated take by Tom Wilkinson.
Wilkinson is in "Duplicity," this time as the CEO of Burkett & Randle opposite the CEO of Omnikrom (Paul Giamatti).
"Duplicity," though, lacks the focal point that "Michael Clayton" offered.
If you think about it, "Michael Clayton" was confusing. REALLY confusing. Gilroy has a tendency as a writer to offer too many details, often unnecessary and intrusive. In "Michael Clayton," one could survive this because Clooney was clearly the focal point of the film and Clooney could sell it.
In "Duplicity," Gilroy gets even more detailed, again unnecessarily so, and while one can easily argue that Roberts and Owen are the film's focal point it seems to be less true.
Yes, Claire and Ray are the central storyline. Yet, Gilroy has surrounded them with equally entertaining corporate CEO's, both Wilkinson and Giamatti are awesome here, and the film's production values are so stellar that the central storyline is less, well, central.
The end result is that "Duplicity" feels more convoluted than did "Michael Clayton" and, while this often works for the film, Gilroy isn't a Coen or even a David Mamet for that matter.
Solid acting. Interesting characters. Witty dialogue. Sizzling chemistry. Beautiful, global cinematography from Robert Elswit. A score from James Newton Howard.
Chill with the details, Tony.
Stop trying so hard. Relax.
We like you. We really, really like you.
"Duplicity" is an enjoyable film, an intelligent film, a stylish film and a satisfying film. It's a welcome return for the gettin' back to work Julia Roberts and a damn near perfect role for Clive Owen. Now, if we can just get Gilroy to trust his audience a bit more we may very well have the perfect romantic thriller.
Maybe next time.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic