Written and Directed by: Tony Gilroy
Starring: Clive Owen, Julia Roberts, Tom Wilkinson, Paul Giamatti, Denis O’Hare
Rated: PG-13 for language and some sexual content.
Parental Notes: This is a fairly tame film with mild sexual content and nudity. Young children may find the intricate plot dull, but teens will probably enjoy it.
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“Duplicity” is the second film Tony Gilroy has written and directed — the other being the magnificent “Michael Clayton.” But where “Michael Clayton” was a gripping thriller packed with deceitful, backstabbing bastards, “Duplicity” is a charming blend of romance, comedy, and intrigue — packed with deceitful, backstabbing bastards. What makes the romance work is that both parties know perfectly well that the other person is utterly untrustworthy. They each know how the other’s mind works — and are attracted to each other anyway. Perhaps even as a result.
Ray Koval (Clive Owen) and Claire Stenwick (Julia Roberts) met years ago when she worked for the CIA and he worked for MI-6. When they meet again, they’re both working in corporate intelligence, each for a different company. The two companies involved are massive, and their CEOs, played by the wonderful Paul Giamatti and Tom Wilkinson, are engaged in a personal feud. The two men are so determined to one-up each other that they each have intelligence divisions dedicated to spying on the other company, trying to guess each other’s next moves and steal whatever information they can. Ray and Claire figure out a way to take advantage of the situation for their mutual benefit — but of course, in a film like this, nothing is what it seems. The plot is deliciously intricate, and attempting to discuss it without giving away some of the joy of surprise is almost impossible.
So, let us instead consider the performances. Owen and Roberts have a thoroughly enjoyable chemistry together, and the well-crafted script gives them an excellent structure to work with. Everyone here is playing everyone else, one way or another, and both Owen and Roberts are able to be at once thoroughly conniving and thoroughly charming. Their romance works not in spite of their attempts to play each other, but because of it. They both know all the tricks of the spy trade, and so they can guess what the other is thinking — they understand how being a spy changes the way you see the world, and that enables them to understand each other in ways nobody else can.
There are reflections here of various familiar tropes — romantic comedies, heist films, spy movies — but they are all handled with a light, deft touch reminiscent of “Ocean’s 11” and blended together seamlessly There are the familiar jealousies and tests of a romantic comedy, but they’re done through the lens of a spy picture. There are interrogations and codes and sneaky messages, but they’re often run through a romantic comedy filter (watch for the scene in which Claire interrogates a woman Ray has seduced — you can almost see the wheels turning behind her nearly-inscrutable expression).
“Duplicity” is a wonderful blend of genres, a spy thriller mixed with romantic comedy. It’s not particularly edgy or brilliant, but if you enjoy double- and triple-crosses, atypical romance, and the kind of hilarity that comes from watching players get played, don’t miss it.