Monday, April 06, 2009

Monday Movie Review: Duplicity

Duplicity (2009) 9/10
Ray (Clive Owen) is former MI6 agent. Claire (Julia Roberts) is a former CIA agent. In 2002 they met, slept together, and she stole some papers from him. Now they're corporate spies on the same team. Or are they? Written and directed by Tony Gilroy.

There is something delightfully retro about Duplicity. It feels like a charming caper from the sixties, like the original Thomas Crown Affair. It's in the bounciness of the filming, especially when scenes are entered via split screen. There's a smartness and a sense of ease, as if nothing that happens is all that serious, even though the stakes are high.

I saw a review that likened Duplicity to a screwball, and I can definitely see that; it's especially similar to His Girl Friday. Owen and Roberts are certainly a better physical and personal match for Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell than for Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway! But it's mostly the rapid-fire romance, and romantic humor, juxtaposed with a gritty, even dark, story.

This may sounds as if Duplicity is kitsch. It is not. The core story, of corporate espionage, is told in an almost naturalistic style. None of the cast, other than the two leads, have dazzling movie star good looks. The CEO rivals are played by Tom Wilkinson and Paul Giamatti, and the other security agents and tech geeks are equally unbeautiful. The blend of the sparkling stars with the rest of the cast isn't quite seamless, and is the only place I'd fault the film.

We open in Dubai. Ray and Claire meet, flirt, make love, and he wakes up alone. Then it's the present day, and we don't know quite what's going on. Throughout the film, we learn more and more. From 2002, the flashbacks move steadily forward, until, in the end, we see exactly how the present events fit with Ray and Claire's past history. It's not confusing, except inasmuch as you don't know the whole plot—but why should you? The reveal is part of the pleasure, and each time information is revealed, you know more. It's not The Usual Suspects, with a final twist that reverses the previous movie, or Swordfish, with a final twist that pretends to explain everything but is just more gobbledygook. It's a steady, bit-by-bit accumulation of knowledge throughout a dizzying sequence of events. Delightful.

And the thing is, there's a real story being told here. Tony Gilroy is interested in the workings of trust and distrust, of love and eroticism, and of how they all interact as understood by two spies in a relationship that may or may not be real. It's a good story, well-told, and a lot of fun as well.