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Duplicity

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 03/21/09 12:34:35

"A glossy, twisty delight."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

“Duplicity” is a real crackerjack of a puzzler, the sort of movie where the audience tries to outguess the characters while the characters try to outguess each other. The story folds over itself many times, tossing us clues as it flashes back and forward, revealing just a little more of its own game each time.

Ah, but even if you’re still left scratching your noggin after the script offers up its final explanations, that’s hardly the point, for “Duplicity” is also the kind of movie that revels in watching gorgeous movie stars trade crackling dialogue in exotic locales. Here we have Julia Roberts and Clive Owen, so nasty to each other in “Closer” and so wickedly sexy here; their very roles require continuous attempts to out-charm each other with hard banter and soft kisses, often on the beaches of Miami or the streets of Rome or poolside in Dubai.

The film is writer/director Tony Gilroy’s follow-up to “Michael Clayton,” and he’s rewarding himself with something a little light and fluffy. Gilroy is a veteran screenwriter (he collaborated on all three “Bourne” films, and before that wrote iffier projects like “Bait” and “Proof of Life”), and in “Duplicity” he unloads all the trappings of a writer’s movie: the sharp, musical dialogue; the twisty plotting; the clever storytelling tricks. Even the settings are used as precise punchlines. This feels like a movie that would be just as much fun to read as it is to watch.

Revealing any plot beyond the first few minutes would really be unfair, so I’ll try to stick to the most basic of basics. Owen is Ray Koval, British intelligence; Roberts is Claire Stenwick, CIA. They meet in Dubai - Ray attempts the lamest of pick-ups, but she falls for it - and one of them is out to con the other, stealing vital security documents that matter not to the story. Indeed, none of the vital documents mentioned throughout the film are important to us, the audience; only in the third act does the revelation of a top secret formula matter, and only then as the slyest of mental stingers. Until then, it’s all MacGuffin nothingness. The importance lies in if, when, and how Ray and Claire can get what they want to get.

We pick up years after Dubai, with both agents now retired and working in the private sector, as corporate spies for rival companies (one of which is modeled conspicuously after Procter & Gamble). There’s something about one company planning to introduce a product so secret it’s known to only a handful of employees. One company has it, the other wants to steal it, and Ray and Claire find themselves somewhere in the middle, scheming all the way. They might be able to nab the formula - whatever it might be - for themselves, and get so very, very rich. They might be working together. They might out to con each other out of their share of the prize. They might be doing all of this, and more.

Does Gilroy play fair? Of course not. Part of the fun in “Duplicity” is that the characters (some of them, anyway) always know more than the audience (some of them, anyway), right up until the end. The ending might go a bit too far in slowly explaining the final reveal when just a few seconds of film would’ve done the trick just nicely (before then, Gilroy shows great faith in the audience to keep up, rarely explaining the goings-on, leaving it up to us), but that final scene hardly spoils the fun. It’s a game between them and us, as we’re asked to see how many pieces we can fit together, and how quickly.

Even if you don’t stay on top of the game, you’ll surely enjoy the breezy, sexy rapport between the two leads clearly enjoying themselves in their roles; and the comic angle of supporting players Paul Giamatti and Tom Wilkinson, both terrific as CEOs obsessed with their own rivalries; and the spy genre twists applied to matters of hand lotions and frozen pizzas; and the nailbiting thrill of a few beat-the-clock moments where everything is on the line. “Duplicity” is whip smart storytelling and a fizzy caper delight, a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside a brassy, winking enigma, chilling next to an uncorked bottle of champagne.

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