Review: 'Duplicity'

Romantic thriller rolls out star power but leaves audience with an empty puzzle of a plot.

By , Film critic of The Christian Science Monitor

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    The film features cat-and-mouse machinations between former MI6 agent Ray Koval (Clive Owen) and ex-CIA operative Claire Stenwick (Julia Roberts).
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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.

"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.

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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.

Still, Gilroy must have relished jazzing the formula after writing the humorless "Bourne" pictures and writing and directing the straight-faced corporate thriller "Michael Clayton." The plot has something to do with getting the lowdown on a potentially billion-dollar-earning top-secret new product. What it's really about is how sexy Owen and Roberts look together as they "diss" each other (their version of foreplay).

I'm not sure that, strictly speaking, either of them is acting. What they're doing is more like extreme posing. With his clipped suavity and laser-beam eyes, Owen at times seems to be playing a cooled-out James Bond, while Roberts comes on like a luscious sphinx. The real acting fireworks come from Wilkinson and Giamatti, and from Carrie Preston in a small role as a low-level corporate worker who takes a carnal tumble with Ray and is left ga-ga by the memory of it.

"Duplicity" may be much less than the sum of its parts, but at least some of those parts shimmer. (Rated PG-13 for language and some sexual content.)

'The Great Buck Howard'

With his mesmeric voice and big, boggly eyes, John Malkovich is the ideal choice to play an over-the-hill mentalist in "The Great Buck Howard." Buck was once a fixture on "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson" (61 appearances, as he never tires of reminding people). Now he's reduced to playing out-of-the-loop community centers and half-filled small-town auditoriums. Still, Buck is a trooper – his first words upon stepping into a new gig are always "I love this town!" – and there's something poignant, and almost revivifying, about his gumption.

The movie, which was written and directed by Sean McGinly, is consistently good as long as it centers on Buck and his seriocomic travails. Buck has had a lifetime of embracing, and fending off, fans, and he gets to do quite a bit of both here. He still dreams of hitting it big once again – in Vegas and on "The Tonight Show" – but he's smart enough to know that he's something of an antique. His ironclad routines, such as guessing secret numbers, hypnotizing patrons, and locating a stash of hidden cash in the audience, are so old school they're practically antediluvian. And yet they continue to impress.

In the end, Buck is a mentalist who does not know much about his own mind. For that, he employs an assistant, Troy (Colin Hanks, son of Tom, who coproduced and has a cameo as Troy's – what else? – father). This mentor-rookie relationship is rather hackneyed and is reminiscent of other, better movies, such as "My Favorite Year," about showbiz divas and their young lackeys. Colin Hanks is a pleasantly vapid presence and he's no match for Malkovich or even Emily Blunt, who steals every one of her scenes as a wised-up publicist who doesn't fall for Buck's blather.

About halfway through the movie McGinly unfortunately dispenses with comic cynicism in favor of hearts and flowers, but no amount of sentimentality can erase Malkovich's brio. Grade: B (Rated PG for some language including suggestive remarks, and a drug reference.)

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