Tony Gilroy's been a working writer in Hollywood since the early '90s, but it's really only been in the last seven years that he's hit his stride and really established his voice. In 2007, he made his directorial debut with "Michael Clayton," and if you enjoyed that film, then "Duplicity" should have you dancing in the aisles. It's smart, sophisticated bubblegum, a chance for two actors to turn the charm up and let their hair down a bit. The entire film, with its knotted narrative and its sassy attitude, is basically an excuse for Clive Owen and Julia Roberts to engage in a bit of verbal tango for a few hours. How you feel about the film will depend in large part on how you feel about them as actors, and my own enjoyment of the film caught me a bit off-guard.
I don't dislike Julia Roberts... I've just never been a rabid fan. I think she's given some very good performances, and I think she's also been in films where she was stranded without any support. Now that she's aged out of the mainstream romantic lead, the roles she's right for are more interesting, if less frequent, and my first reaction here was that she was slightly miscast. Upon reflection, though, I'd say that's not true. She's older, and it shows, and that's actually perfect for what Gilroy's written. She plays Claire, formerly of the CIA, while Owen plays Ray, formerly of MI6, both of them professionals who are moving from one career into another, both of them seasoned and experienced. Their romantic connection isn't based on a fleeting physical attraction. Instead, it hinges on the fact that they recognize something in one another, something unique. These are people who lie and cheat and manipulate for a living, and to suddenly come face-to-face with someone who not only understands who they are, but who can accept them, dishonesty and all.
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I'd like to thank Tony Gilroy for finally figuring out how to tap into the charm that we always hear Clive Owen possesses, but which we almost never see on film. As good as he is in films like "Children of Men" or "Inside Men" or "Closer," he's turned into this glowering, dour presence that borders on self-parody at times. This time, his smile is wielded as a secret weapon, and it makes all the difference in the world. He seems to be enjoying the game so much that it won me over quickly and actually amplified my own enjoyment of what was happening.
And what, exactly, is the game?
Both Claire and Ray have left the international espionage game behind to work on the corporate level. The film's opening scene shows two men (Paul Giamatti and Tom Wilkinson) running into each other on the runway of an airport and fist-fighting over... something. That relationship informs everything else we see happen, and both Claire and Ray are involved in an elaborate multi-level scam to steal trade secrets. Are they on the same side? Different sides? Who's lying to whom? Gilroy doubles back on himself so many different times that it's a bit dizzying, but that's what makes a movie like this fun. It reminds me of breezy entertainments like "Gambit" from the '60s, in which adults spar their way through a con, sexual chemistry crackling the entire time. The difference is that Gilroy acknowledges just how hard it is to keep up that facade for years and years, and both Ray and Claire find themselves struggling to define what's real, afraid to trust even themselves after all the fabrications that have become so second-nature.
Gilroy's films are slick, and Robert Elswit's photography here as well as James Newton Howard's score both enhance the tactile pleasure of the film. It's a solid supporting cast, with Giamatti in particular turning his inner-scumbag up to full volume. When you learn what the entire scam is about, it's absurd, but I get the feeling Gilroy knew that anything would end up seeming silly based on all the effort expended, so he made it something that's almost a wink to the audience. It's hard to believe this is only his second film as a director. Gilroy may have taken his time honing his voice as a filmmaker, but there's little doubt that he's got it down to a science at this point. "Duplicity" may not be an award-winner at year's end, but for adults looking to see something that treats them with genuine respect this weekend, there are few films in wide release that better fit the bill.
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