Movie Review: Duplicity
By Matthew Huntley
April 8, 2009
Duplicity sells itself as a slick, romantic caper with two attractive leads - Julia Roberts and Clive Owen. But there's actually more to it than that. Simply watching Roberts and Owen exchange zippy remarks for two hours might have been fun, but it might have also gotten old. Duplicity is actually about something, and underneath its somewhat convoluted plot is a biting little satire that left me intrigued, if a little cold.
Roberts and Owen play Claire Stenwick and Ray Koval, a couple of spies who scheme to cheat two opposing corporations out of $40 million, give or take. Claire is ex-CIA and Ray is ex-MI6. When the movie opens, it's 2003 and both are working undercover. Through flashbacks, we see how Claire and Ray's relationship, which starts out as a steamy one-night stand, gradually turns into love, and how each time they meet between 2003 and the present day, they work out their plan to get rich, walk away and be happy.
What is their plan? Claire is working as a mole for CEO Dick Garsik (Paul Giamatti) at the company of Garsik's nemesis, Howard Tully (Tom Wilkinson). Ray also works for Garsik, and both Claire and Ray make him believe they're planning to steal a chemical formula from Tully for a new multi-million dollar product, which they are, but their plan is steal the formula for themselves and sell it to a foreign buyer for an even bigger profit.
What we don't know is whether Claire and Ray are actually on the same side or if their romantic encounters are expressions of love or just meaningless throws of passion as they wait to collect their millions. By the end...well, I can't really go into what happens without giving away crucial plot information.
What I will say is the movie's plot acts as an emotional filter and doesn't allow for a lot of feeling to get through. This was okay for me because the plot is engaging and interesting enough. What's intriguing is the way it gets us to believe there really are moles working undercover and that such schemes to steal rival companies' information probably takes place everyday in corporate America. Heck, I don't rule out the possibility there may be moles in my own company, searching for secrets and extracting confidential information. It's unlikely, but possible.
Where Duplicity mostly shines are the scenes of sharp exchanges between Roberts and Owen, who have a strong chemistry and convince us they're more than just celebrities having fun. The dialogue isn't all about zingers and catchy one-liners, like Big Trouble or Ocean's 11, and the actors aren't so self-conscious they're in a movie. They actually take the plot seriously and work to perform. They're not here just show off their good looks and charms.
The supporting players are also a pleasure, especially Paul Giamatti, who plays a corporate weasel with terrifying conviction. Make note of his mannerisms and jokes when he speaks to Garsik's investors at the San Diego Convention Center. It's almost disgusting because you buy that corporate executives like him really exist. Giamatti's performance is part parody I'm sure, but it stems from truth.
Duplicity was written and directed by Tony Gilroy, who made the excellent and indelible Michael Clayton. His follow-up is not nearly in the same range, at least not in terms of its overall effect, but I appreciated Gilroy's strategy to make the movie more than just a celebrity showcase. He actually has something to say about corporate scandal, morality and business ethics.
The movie is confusing at times, yes, but it keeps us on our toes and we're challenged, even if we are kept at distance from really getting to know the characters. The ultimate payoff also lacks a punch (because our investment in the characters isn't as great, it's harder to care about what happens to them), but it's more than just fluff and we feel like we've gained an extra insight into corporate America.