Romantic caper of ex-spies amid cubicles and copiers

"Duplicity," from the writer/ director of "Michael Clayton," stars (from left) Clive Owen, Julia Roberts, Oleg Stefan and Kathleen Chalfant.
"Duplicity," from the writer/ director of "Michael Clayton," stars (from left) Clive Owen, Julia Roberts, Oleg Stefan and Kathleen Chalfant.
Posted: March 20, 2009

For the parties concerned, corporate espionage - the pinching of trade secrets and lucrative new formulae - must seem like a pulse-pounding, nerve-racking business.

But say you're watching a movie about this stuff: desk chair double-agentry, cubicle sleuthing, copy machine, er, copying. In Duplicity, the companies involved are entities like Proctor & Gamble - conglomerate purveyors of toothpastes and laxatives, ointments and oils.

The McGuffin - Hitchcock's famous thing that the plot of any good thriller spins around - is no longer a menacing code, a nuclear weapon, a deadly toxin. It's something to do with personal hygiene, or shampoo.

Try to sex that up.

Well, in Duplicity, writer-director Tony Gilroy - the man behind the just-about-brilliant Michael Clayton - tries mightily. Nudging a couple of Hollywood thoroughbreds out of the gate - Julia Roberts, onscreen for the first time since 2007's Charlie Wilson's War, and dapper, blue-eyed Brit Clive Owen - the filmmaker cues up a jaunty retro Mancini soundtrack and dispatches the duo to ritzy locales in Dubai, London, Miami, Rome and Zurich (and Cleveland).

Aiming for a romantic-caper vibe (The Thomas Crown Affair comes to mind, especially when Gilroy starts deploying those split screens), Duplicity zips from one elaborate piece of hugger-mugger to the next. But at a certain point (for me, it was Rome), boredom sets in. The moves are fancy - reversal, twist, reversal, twist - but what's the point?

Roberts is Claire Stenwick, formerly of the CIA and now on the payroll of Burkett & Randle, but - no real spoiler here - secretly working for its rival, the mighty Omnikrom. Her handler there is Ray Koval (Owen), late of Britain's MI6 and now running covert ops for a corporate boss.

Claire and Ray have a history going back to their days as government agents (Dubai, spiked bubbly, a missing file). The gimmick of Duplicity is that, despite their clear attraction, Claire and Ray are, by nature and training, wary. Instead of "I love you," it's "Are you gaming me? Are you playing me?"

If you've spent your professional life lying and deceiving, can it be possible to trust the person you love?

Interesting question, I guess. But when you wrap it in scenarios full of computer hacking, shareholder meetings, and who's-scamming-whom? subterfuge, the viewer - well, this viewer, anyway - begins not to care.

Roberts does her knowing and knowingly sexy routine, which either works for you or doesn't. Her 'do is reddish-brown, longish and wavy, so those who subscribe to the Julia Roberts' hair/box office theorem can place their bets now. (If it's long and curly, the pic's a hit; short and serious, it's a miss.)

Owen shows more spark and sardonic wit than he did in last month's banking caper The International. But only a little more.

Tom Wilkinson, the formidable madman lawyer of Michael Clayton, reteams with Gilroy to offer a stern, scowling performance as the chief executive officer of Burkett & Randle. Paul Giamatti is his counterpart across Park Avenue at Omnikrom HQ, hamming it up like a cartoon rabbit.

Wilkinson and Giamatti, in fact, do a slo-mo face-off in Duplicity's opening credit sequence - two corporate giants, growling and grappling on a rain-soaked airport tarmac. It's the most dynamic moment in the film, and, alas, it has nothing to do with the two leads.


Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com.

Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://go.philly.com/onmovies.

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|