Claire Stenwick (Julia Roberts) and Ray Koval (Clive Owen) are both career government spies; she works for the CIA, he for MI6. When they meet on assignment in Dubai, they fall into bed, and then she drugs him and steals his secret documents. Years later, they have both moved into the private sector, working as corporate spies for competing soap companies run by characters played by Paul Giamatti and Tom Wilkinson. They discover that the old spark is still there, and they decide to use their positions to run a con on their employers and steal the top-secret formula for a product one of the companies is developing and sell it to the highest bidder. They don’t know what it is, but they know it’s valuable.
Ray and Claire fall in lust, but they also understand each other, and can love each other’s dishonesty. But they’re still both consummate professionals at heart, and as a result are always suspicious of each other, and aren’t even really sure if their own feelings are genuine, or are merely borne out of the desire to be able to feel something loftier than suspicion.
Writer/director Tony Gilroy has effectively used plot twists in many of the scripts he has written, including his directorial debut, the excellent Michael Clayton. Here, though, they take center stage. We hear one conversation in the film four or five different times, each time from a new perspective and with a new meaning. The particulars of the plot may not always be overly engaging, particularly considering the huge effort put into confounding the audience, but there are so many twists, turns, reversals and MacGuffins that the sheer accumulation of all these plot gymnastics is rather fascinating. The twists themselves almost become the point of the movie, and they serve to make the audience become like the characters, suspicious of everything and not knowing what to trust.
Of course, all this may be a very nice way of saying that the movie is far too in love with its own cleverness, but with Gilroy’s tightly written script and crackling dialogue (Ray: “At least we have each other.” Claire: “It‘s really that bad, isn’t it.”), the film is still pretty relentlessly entertaining. Gilroy even manages to inject a healthy vein of corporate satire, with the CEOs talking about total war with their competitors, and the spies protecting their employers’ shampoos and creams (or lotions, and it’s an important distinction) with the same fervor they would have for state secrets.
But setting aside all this talk about the plot, the movie is really just an elaborate excuse for Roberts and Owen to make googly eyes at each other for two hours, and the two prove to have tangible chemistry. Roberts has coasted on charm for years; even when her performances aren’t particularly impressive, she is charismatic. But the real standout here is Owen. He has played a lot of rumpled, stubbly badasses over the years, in films such as Children of Men and The International, but his glowering had become a bit repetitive. Here, he gets to showcase his natural charm, and proves to have a real facility with comedy.
The supporting cast is equally entertaining. Giamatti’s character, Dick Garsik, CEO of Equikrom, is a supremely slimy little weasel, all smarm and tenacity, like Scrappy Doo in a business suit. Conversely, Tom Wilkinson’s character, Howard Tully, CEO of Burkett-Randle, inhabits a blinding white office that resembles a CDC quarantine room, complete with a white stone slab for a desk. His job as CEO seems to consist entirely of pruning his bonsai tree while intoning things to his subordinates.
Gilroy managed the impressive simultaneous feats of making Duplicity succeed both as a frothy, charming trifle and a precisely calibrated, Swiss watch of a plot. The actors enjoy the movie’s myriad con games enough that they convince us to go along for the ride. After all the plot convolutions, they’re what we really care about.
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