Friday, March 20, 2009

Dizzying Double Crossers

Directed and written by Tony Gilroy
Starring Julia Roberts, Clive Owen, Tom Wilkinson, Paul Giamatti, Denis O’Hare, Kathleen Chalfant
Opens March 20, 2009

Roberts and Owen
No one can say that Tony Gilroy repeats himself.

After writing and directing the taut corporate crime thriller Michael Clayton starring George Clooney in 2007, Gilroy returns with Duplicity, a diabolically entertaining espionage yarn starring Clive Owen and Julia Roberts as romantically involved corporate spies who double-cross their bosses, their rivals, and maybe even each other.

Globe-hopping larks starring beautiful people have been filmed for decades, of course, but aside from the rare classic like Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief or Stanley Donen’s Charade, there haven’t been many memorable ones made. (Mr. and Mrs. Smith with Brangelina, anyone?) Although ultimately biting off more than it can chew and limping to a lame conclusion, for much of its length Duplicity personifies moviemaking at its most stylish.

It all starts with the stars. Whatever her merits as an actress (an undeserved Oscar for Erin Brockovich), Julia Roberts is the epitome of movie-star glamour, and her turn as ex-CIA agent Claire recalls the elegance and grace of Audrey Hepburn in To Catch a Thief and Charade. Roberts doesn’t have to do much other than look great and trade quips with co-star Clive Owen, who plays Ray, her lover-compatriot-partner-rival. Their chemistry is not as combustible as that between Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn in both Thief and Charade, but that’s beside the point.

Gilroy delights in setting up the most convoluted plot machinations, which involve brazen double-crossings between two competing, scheming corporations led by Tom Wilkinson and Paul Giamatti, both doing their scenery-chewing best. (Gilroy glibly literalizes the two bigwigs’ hatred for each other with a slo-mo fight that doubles as the opening title sequence—it probably seemed better in theory than in execution.)

The sundry flashbacks to Claire and Ray’s early days together will no doubt confuse and disorient many viewers, since the story and their relationship makes scant sense. But if you follow Gilroy’s plotting and listen to his precise dialogue, you should be able to keep up with the constant ebb and flow. Still, even a straightforward drama like Michael Clayton confused viewers, so how audiences respond to Duplicity’s cleverness will depend on whether they were burned out by the cooler-than-thou faux-hipness of Ocean’s Eleven, Ocean’s Twelve and Ocean's Thirteen.

Sophisticated comic capers demand effortlessness, and Duplicity occasionally stumbles over that hurdle. The weak ending shows how the double-crossers are themselves double-crossed, with Gilroy unnecessarily laying out in exacting detail how they’re duped. That such smart and careful conspirators would be taken in by a blatantly obvious stratagem makes for a bumpy ending that sullies—but doesn’t negate—the preceding two beguiling hours.

Finally, give kudos to Gilroy for populating Duplicity with first-rate stage actors like Denis O’Hare and Kathleen Chalfant in supporting roles as our spies’ accomplices—or are they rivals? Still, it’s with his two stars that Gilroy works his duplicitous magic.

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