By Sean Collier
March 26, 2009
Actors seem to enjoy playing spies. It could be because this is a relatively easy thing to do, being that actors and spies are basically doing the same thing. It could also be because every spy movie, by law, must have at least one scene in the Bahamas and another in a Mediterranean villa. It also could be that, as films would have us believe, spies spend significantly more time having sex and drinking then they do spying, and this work affords actors to, themselves, have sex and drink while working.
Hmm. When that paragraph began, I was reviewing Duplicity, but by the end, I just wanted to be an actor. Sorry about that.
In any case, the field of espionage as depicted by Tony Gilroy (director/writer of Michael Clayton) sees the best spies in the world leave government employ to follow the big money – in corporations, obviously. As he did with Clayton, Gilroy can infuse more tension into a boardroom than anybody else, with a unique knack for painting character through opulence. His skill behind the camera has only grown, as once again he has put together a fluid, atmospheric piece, and uses more of the best actors in the world with a deft hand.
His pen, however, tries to do cartwheels. The plot of Duplicity goes something like this (I'll try not to give much away): Claire and Ray (Julia Roberts and Clive Owen) are the ex-spies in question, he formerly of MI6, and she formerly of the CIA. After meeting by way of a covert mission in Dubai, they reconnect in Rome and hatch something of a brilliant plan: get out of government, infiltrate the intelligence operations of rival corporations, use their skills to steal something important and reap huge profits. From here, everyone screws everyone over seven times, red herrings fly at an alarming rate, and we travel to a dozen intensely compelling locations (and also Cleveland.)
If anything, Duplicity keeps us guessing a bit too much. It skillfully creates a never-ceasing air of suspicion; the film's main tension surrounds whether or not Claire and Ray can actually trust one another, and that works fine. It would work better, however, if we had a pure thriller on our hands; in reality, thriller and romance are constantly vying for supremacy, and we're not sure if we're supposed to be waiting for them to declare their true, non-covert love or rooting for one or the other (or both) to get the big score. Sort of a heist movie by way of You've Got Mail.
It's to Gilroy's credit (as a director more than a writer) that this almost works. He'd clearly have us on the edge of our seats, just as tense we are about the outcome of the plan as we are enthralled in the romantic tête-à-tête; in reality, some sequences of each work, others don't. The beginning works, though, and the ending works, and usually if you get acts one and three right, it's not really worth quibbling over act two all that much.
It's Julia's job to remain alluring and downright sultry, now a full 19 years after Pretty Woman. She's up to the task, and to be honest, her recent underexposure benefited her here; after an intense period of working way too much from about 1996 to 2002, she's chosen her projects a bit more sparsely, and it's allowed her to look fresh again. Owen's task is to play the same notes four or five times, and play them well enough to keep us occupied; fortunately, Clive Owen does everything well, all the time, so it works. The real heavy lifting is done by the CEO's in question, played by Gilroy favorite Tom Wilkinson and Paul Giamatti, who looks like he could have a heart attack in literally every scene.
The main characters are constantly expressing an odd combination of emotions: charmed, intrigued, and suspicious. It's clearly the intention, here, that the people sitting in the theater feel exactly the same way. Gilroy would like us to experience these states simultaneously, but instead, we sort of drift between them. That works too, but I left the theater feeling like I had been put through the ringer a bit more than necessary. Maybe an inch or two off the mark, but it works.
Now, I've gotta figure out how to at least be a P.A. on one of these drinking and sexing and spying movies. Anyone? Suggestions?