"Duplicity" is an ultra-sophisticated love story between two corporate spies.

Claire Stenwick - Julia Roberts Ray Koval - Clive Owen Howard Tully - Tom Wilkinson Richard Garsik - Paul Giamatti Jeff Bauer - Tom McCarthy Duke Monahan - Denis O'Hare Pam Frales - Kathleen Chalfant Ned Guston - Wayne Duvall Barbara Bofferd - Carrie Preston Boris Fetyov - Oleg Stefan Dale Raimes - Rick Worthy Dinesh Patel - Khan Baykal Big Swiss Suit - Ulrich Thomsen Ronny Partiz - Christopher Denham

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.

Popular on Variety


Production: A Universal release presented in association with Relativity Media. Produced by Jennifer Fox, Kerry Orent, Laura Bickford. Executive producer, Ryan Kavanaugh. Co-producers, Christopher Goode, John Gilroy. Directed, written by Tony Gilroy. Camera (Technicolor, Panavision widescreen), Robert Elswit; editor, John Gilroy.

Crew: Music, James Newton Howard; music supervisor, Brian Ross; production designer, Kevin Thompson; art directors, Stephen Carter, Tamara Marini (Rome); set decorator, George DeTitta Jr.; costume designer, Albert Wolsky; sound (DTS/SDDS/Dolby Digital), Michael Barosky; supervising sound editor, Warren Shaw; re-recording mixers, Michael Barry, Shaw; visual effects, Asylum, Hammerhead, Handmade Digital, Brainstorm Digital special effects coordinators, Jeff Brink, Eddie Droghan; stunt coordinator, Jery Hewit; assistant director, Stephen Apicella; casting, Ellen Chenoweth. Reviewed at Clarity screening room, Beverly Hills, March 12, 2009. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 125 MIN.

With: Claire Stenwick - Julia Roberts Ray Koval - Clive Owen Howard Tully - Tom Wilkinson Richard Garsik - Paul Giamatti Jeff Bauer - Tom McCarthy Duke Monahan - Denis O'Hare Pam Frales - Kathleen Chalfant Ned Guston - Wayne Duvall Barbara Bofferd - Carrie Preston Boris Fetyov - Oleg Stefan Dale Raimes - Rick Worthy Dinesh Patel - Khan Baykal Big Swiss Suit - Ulrich Thomsen Ronny Partiz - Christopher Denham

More Film

  • They Shall Not Grow Old restoration

    Peter Jackson Documentary 'They Shall Not Grow Old' Nabs Limited China Release

    The Peter Jackson produced and directed World War I documentary “They Shall Not Grow Old” will hit Chinese theaters on November 11. Though it will roll out nationwide, it will do so via the China’s National Arthouse Alliance, which has limited screens. The 2018 documentary puts together interviews with WWI veterans and more than 100-year-old [...]

  • Zombieland Double Tap

    'Zombieland: Double Tap' Hopes to Recapture Raunchy Zombie Magic, 10 Years Later

    Audiences may have a few questions about the sequel to 2009’s hit “Zombieland,” which opens Friday. Why did it take 10 years to make a second one, after the first grossed $102.4 million worldwide on a $23 million budget, making it the third-biggest zombie movie of all time (second-biggest if you don’t count “Hotel Transylvania,” [...]

  • AMC TheatresShop signs, Los Angeles, America

    AMC Theatres Accused of Firing VP Who Complained of Gender Pay Gap

    A former vice president at AMC Theatres filed a federal lawsuit on Wednesday, accusing the company of firing her after she complained that she was paid far less than her male peers. Tonya Mangels, who was vice president of product marketing, said that in March 2018 her supervisor inadvertently sent her a spreadsheet that included [...]

  • Sir Elton John poses for photographers

    Elton John Calls 'Lion King' Remake a 'Huge Disappointment'

    Elton John isn’t feeling the love for Disney’s latest live-action remake. In an interview with GQ U.K., the legendary musician criticized Disney’s remake of “The Lion King,” citing the film’s music as a “huge disappointment.” “The new version of The Lion King was a huge disappointment to me, because I believe they messed the music [...]

  • Fiddlin'

    Film Review: 'Fiddlin''

    Not many forms of music have “old-” actually built into their name as a prefix. So it’s a given that the practitioners of the 200-year-old genre known as “old-time music” will wear their antiquity proudly in “Fiddlin’,” a documentary set in and around the 80th annual Old Fiddler’s Convention in Galax, Va. What may not [...]

  • Jonah Hill attends the press conference

    Jonah Hill Passes on Role in 'The Batman'

    After being offered a role in “The Batman,” Jonah Hill has moved on from the project. Why exactly Hill is passing is currently unknown, and insiders tell Variety that when the news was initially reported, it was very early in the negotiations and that a deal was far from closing. The news comes after Zoe [...]

  • Daniel Kaluuya Elizabeth Moss

    SCAD Savannah Film Festival Honorees Include Daniel Kaluuya, Elisabeth Moss

    Daniel Kaluuya, Elisabeth Moss, Danielle Macdonald, Aldis Hodge, Valerie Pachner, Samantha Morton, Sienna Miller, Alan Silvestri and Olivia Wilde are set to be honored at the 22nd Annual SCAD Savannah Film Festival. Breakout Award honorees include Beanie Feldstein, Kaitlyn Dever, Jharrel Jerome, Mena Massoud and Camila Morrone. Macdonald, who appears on Netflix in “Unbelievable” and [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content