An ultra-sophisticated love story between two corporate spies with pronounced mutual trust issues, “Duplicity” is a brainy, non-violent “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” the film “Intolerable Cruelty” wanted to be, a “Trouble in Paradise” for modern times. Smart, droll and dazzling to look at and listen to, writer-director Tony Gilroy’s effervescent, intricately plotted puzzler proves in every way superior to his 2007 success “Michael Clayton.” The twisty, time jumping narrative forces viewers to keep on their toes, and it could well be that “Duplicity” is too smart for its own good as far as the popcorn masses are concerned. Still, this is about as good as it gets these days for sharp-minded Hollywood entertainment made for an intelligent audience, and Universal can only hope that Julia Roberts, in an excellent return to leading lady form, still has the B.O. pull to put this one over.
Although the depredations of the corporate world again lie at the heart of things for Gilroy, this time he has a lot more fun with them, setting the tone with a slap-happy opening credits sequence backgrounded by two titans of industry (Tom Wilkinson and Paul Giamatti) coming to blows in exaggerated slow motion in front of their respective private jets as aghast entourages look on.
The stakes are very high here in both love and commerce, the participants are all savvy and hold their cards close, and the winners are those who play the deepest game; who they may be Gilroy craftily keeps a mystery until the very end. In the meantime, there is exceptional pleasure to be taken from watching the consummate pros before and behind the camera play such captivating make-believe with such engaging characters.
In a tangy Dubai-set opener that establishes a sexy vibe that never diminishes across two hours, MI6 agent Ray Koval (Clive Owen) insinuates himself into bed with CIA op Claire Stenwick (Roberts). Five years later, in 2008, Ray encounters Claire again in Grand Central Station, but she adamantly insists she doesn’t remember him. Over the course of the film, their opening gambit repartee becomes a running gag that assumes different flavors based on the time and place, just one clever invention in a film full of them.
Lured from government work into the far more lucrative world of corporate counter-intelligence, the mutually irresistible lovers plot a scheme by which they will spy for rival firms – Burkett & Randle, headed by Howard Tully (Wilkinson), and Omnikrom, led by Dick Garsik (Giamatti) – and hope to make off with enormously profitable secrets. Triggering such an opportunity is a procured handwritten letter revealing B&R’s imminent announcement of a bombshell product guaranteed to generate giant profits. But both its nature and formula must be obtained for the discovery to be any use to either Omnikrom or the two moles.
Claire and Ray understand one another perfectly: They both know neither will ever meet a more suitable match, but they also have every reason not to trust the other; Claire pulls a fast one on Ray on their initial tryst, while Ray, among other deceptions, unsettles Claire by seducing a vulnerable office drone (a terrific Carrie Preston) to procure vital information. Neither wants to be the first to show weakness by uttering an incontrovertible truth, or by confessing love for the other.
All this game playing provides Gilroy with the opportunity to refashion the urbane, snappy repartee of 1930s romantic comedies in a darker, harder edged contemporary context. By pulling off this high-wire act, he shows himself to be one of the few current writers who could possibly have held his own in the august company of his stage-and-newspaper-trained forebears. His dialogue has snap, rhythm and wit, and all the actors in the picture show their appreciation by making it sing or sting, as the occasion requires.
With knowledge no doubt acquired in part while toiling on the three “Bourne” features, Gilroy juices the drama with a dazzling array of surveillance techniques the two companies use to pry into the other’s business; whether they’re true or not, they’re entirely credible in context, as is the unreserved corporate avarice that audiences will more eagerly swallow today than they might have even a year ago.
The screenplay shuffles the chronological deck — the action perpetually shifts to “2 Years Ago,” “10 Days Earlier,” and so on — in ways that only a complete physical exam could prove to be necessary rather than whimsical. But what the calendar jumbling does accomplish is to provide a nice cyclical pattern to the intimate scenes between the romantic leads, which keeps the sexual heat turned up in the midst of so much devious plotting and derring-do. No matter where in the world the action takes them – settings include Rome, Switzerland, the Bahamas, Miami, London, San Diego and Cleveland in addition to New York and Dubai – Claire and Ray always find a time and place to jump-start their romance, which provides an emotional core to parallel the film’s intellectual assessment of corporate mischief.
On the surface, “Duplicity” is escapist fare fronted by beautiful stars wearing gorgeous clothes in chic locations made to look extra-alluring by Robert Elswit’s shimmering camerawork. But these are routine qualities compared to some of the other levels on which the film excels, most notably in its adroit synthesis of pulsing drama, bright humor, heady romance, unapologetic maturity, zero tolerance for fools and cheeky awareness of its rejiggered conventions.
Reteamed after working together in “Closer” (2004), Roberts and Owen manifest excellent chemistry. An ultra-competent control freak, Claire is a woman almost impossible to surprise or impress, and Roberts’ stature feeds into these traits. Her glances and glacial stare-downs rep some of her best moments here, but she’s also very good at recalibrating Claire’s degree of toughness when Ray demonstrates he can match her at her own game.
As for Owen, this reps a very welcome rebound from the similarly globe-trotting “The International,” where he was locked into a state of unrelieved grubbiness and anger. Here, he looks debonair (certain moments suggest what he might have been like as James Bond) and keeps a sensitive finger on his co-star’s pulse, which serves to quicken his own.
Aside from Wilkinson and Giamatti, both delicious as kings of industry whose egos and ambitions know no bounds, supporting cast has been adroitly filled out with moderately familiar faces that have the virtue of not popping up several times a year in movies or on TV.
Film’s craftsmanship is of the highest level, from Kevin Thompson’s production design that complements the locations in evoking many settings and Albert Wolsky’s always flattering costume design to a vibrant, nicely spiced score by James Newton Howard. As neither the shooting nor the editing trade in trendy jitters or jumpiness, one wobbly hand-held shot stands out like a black eye. In every respect, “Duplicity” is a film made with total assurance and savoir faire.