Romantic thriller rolls out star power but leaves audience with an empty puzzle of a plot.
In case you had forgotten, "Duplicity" is a reminder that star power can go a long way. Clive Owen and Julia Roberts play warring, loving corporate spies, and the glamour of their pairing often matches the swankiness of their backdrops – Dubai, Miami, Rome, London, the Bahamas.Skip to next paragraph
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"Duplicity" is also a reminder of the limits of star power. For all the glam and swank, the film is essentially a bright, shiny, empty puzzle. The puzzlemaking by writer-director Tony Gilroy is clever but most frequently an end in itself.
We are called upon to decode the narrative, which flashes back and forth in time beginning in 2003 in Dubai. The gamesmanship between director and audience is meant to mimic the cat-and-mouse machinations between former MI6 agent Ray Koval (Owen) and ex-CIA operative Claire Stenwick (Roberts) as well as the corporate honchos they work for. Too often, though, I asked myself why the film didn't play itself out in a straight line. If it did, maybe it would seem more conventional. Nothing like a little time-juggling to add some high gloss to used goods.
But glossy they are. The whole look and feel of the movie, sensually shot by Robert Elswit, is a deluxe dip in fantasy-land. Even when we are ensconced in grayed-out office interiors instead of five-star hotels, the grubbiness is handsome.
For those who thought, as I did, that "Mr. and Mrs. Smith," the Brad Pitt-Angelina Jolie spy vs. spy slugfest, was way too brutal for its britches, "Duplicity" will serve as an antidote. It's a romantic thriller that for the most part keeps the violence confined to words rather than blows. Perhaps the most violent scene in the movie comes very early on. Rival CEOs Howard Tully (Tom Wilkinson) and Richard Garsik (Paul Giamatti) punch and kick each other on the tarmac in front of their private jets as their entourages recoil in horror. The men's loathing for each other is so livid that it's comic. The sequence is played out in extreme slow-motion, which gives it an almost National Geographic flavor. We could be watching two mastodons going at it.
The verbal parrying between Ray and Claire is modeled on the sophisticated 1930s and '40s comedies of directors such as Ernst Lubitsch and Howard Hawks ("His Girl Friday" especially). Not all of Gilroy's witticisms are up to par, though. There's a big difference between bright and trying-to-be-bright.