Duplicity: Art Mirrors Life? (FILM REVIEW)


What can a Vermonter possibly do, when confronted with the AIG bonus scandal, global economic meltdown, and the uniquely dirty pleasure that is mud season?

Escape to the movies, of course.

And, in the “art mirrors life” department, there is no finer new movie than director Tony Gilroy’s “Duplicity.” This fun if flawed film marks a revival of the old “couples caper” genre (think Hepburn and Grant) and features two of Hollywood’s most bankable stars – Julia Roberts and Clive Owen – surrounded by a scene-stealing supporting cast.

In a nutshell – Ray Koval (Owen) and Claire Stenwick (Roberts) are two retired intelligence agents who’ve transferred their skills to the world of corporate espionage. The game – competing (or are they cooperating?) to steal secret data for a new and stunningly profitable product (a substance that cures male pattern baldness – no joke) while playing off two rival corporations against one another. Veteran actors Paul Giamatti (of “John Adams” fame) and Tom Wilkinson (“Michael Collins”) fill out the film as the antagonistic CEOs of the two rival corporations, and the movie’s opening, featuring a “slow mo” airport tarmac scene in which the two execs try to beat the snot out of each other – is (almost) worth the price of admission.

Back to the game. The film is told in a series of flashbacks shot in exotic locations – Dubai, London, Rome, New York, and, um, Cleveland – moments in which corporate spies Ray and Claire rendezvous for logistical strategizing and sexual refueling. The fun comes when we quickly learn that neither one of them entirely trusts the other to hold to their agreed-upon evolving plan. Each rendezvous scene is a variation on the same theme, in which the two characters repeat lines of similar banter, verbally joust with one another, and then hop in the sack…or don’t. Are they working together? Will one double-cross the other? How will the story end?

There are two problems with the film, one small, the other not so much. The first comes in the film’s climax – after close to two hours of “cat and mouse” fun, the script throws the audience a giant curve ball – which sucks the wind out of the story faster than you can say “AIG bailout scam.” I won’t ruin it for you here, other than to say, in art as well as life, one corporation emerges as the ultimate victor uber alles.

The second and much bigger problem is the almost complete lack of frisson between Roberts and Owen, odd for such two physically attractive and gifted actors. Roberts, who looks a bit tired on camera, goes through the motions of playing the part of the sexy double agent, but never really lights up the screen, even when engaged in amorous acts with Mr. Owen. There is a moment at film’s midpoint when, in one very brief scene, she slips into “Mystic Pizza/Pretty Woman” mode – bright eyed, with her dazzling smile, and I was reminded of just how winsome a character she can play. And anyone who has seen “Erin Brokovich” knows how good a dramatic actress she can be. The problem here seems to be direction – she never really “inhabits” her character, and fifteen minutes into the film, I gave up on her.

Owen, meanwhile, looks good in a suit and designer sunglasses, but delivers most of his lines with the assuredness of someone who has just walked onto the set from a somewhat frustrating chess match not sure if he won or not. Maybe this is the point in a caper film, but the results, when combined with Ms. Roberts’ lack of engagement, are, well, disengaging.

As a story that illuminates the high-stakes cutthroat world of corporate espionage, “Duplicity” has tremendous potential, and there are moments of celluloid magic, scenes involving supporting actors Giamatti and Wilkinson. But as a “couples caper” film, it feels flat.

Maybe, in part, this is because in art, as well in real life, duplicitous corporations are having their way with us at the moment, and it doesn’t feel all that good.