This 2009 romantic jet-set spy thriller stars Clive Owen and Julia Roberts and is written and directed by Tony Gilroy, screenwriter of the Jason Bourne series and writer/director of Michael Clayton. Here Roberts and Owen team up as two corporate spies who seek to gain a foothold as two corporate toiletries giants try to outdue one another. When one of the companies creates an innovation that will reap huge benefits, the two spies manipulate the companies trying to steal the innovation for their own gains. Can a man and a woman who only know how to lie, ever live happily ever after?
This film is essentially a more cerebral Mr. and Mrs. Smith but so much more, like a mix of Howard Hawks screwball-comedy espionage film, a blending of the Ocean’s Eleven caper whimsy with the spy conflicts of Mr. and Mrs. Smith with a dash of His Girl Friday. It’s always bad when seeing a film and reviewing a film to have to compare it to other films. At times that could mean it’s because it’s a copy of the other films, a slight variation on the subject matter. All this is true of Duplicity, but somehow it totally works. This is a fantastic film. The word Duplicity means: the quality of state of being double or twofold. Basically it’s when you use words to hide your true intentions, to trick the listener or in this film’s case, the viewer. So, does this film live up to its name?
For some reason every time I watch these types of films I’m always reminded of the line from Verbal in Usual Suspects: “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he did not exist.” This film is all about deception and if you aren’t with it at the beginning of this film you’re going to hate it. It’s a series of word plays, with every character setting about with their own motives, with every character having two faces. This metaphor is conveyed even further by having its narrated told in fractured flashbacks. Meaning we start the film when the two main characters meet for the first time in Dubai 2003 when they have a passionate night and then Julie Roberts runs off with some stolen documents after drugging Owen’s putting him into a deep sleep. Then we fast forward to the present day when the two characters meet seemingly by chance in NY again, however this time Roberts claims not to remember who Owen’s is. So the story moves on as we find out that two corporate heads Howard Tully (played by Tom Wilkinson) and Dick Garsik (played by Paul Giamatii) are trying to outdo one another except Tully has invented something so Earth shattering that it will change the field of toiletries forever. So while Roberts character Claire works for Tully’s company, Owen’s character Ray works for Garsik’s company. So you start to wonder, “what game are they playing?” And then the story flashback’s to 2005 in Rome, and we start to begin to see the real story. And basically that’s how this movie is told. The movie only drops hints on what’s truly going on through flashbacks, as if the filmmaker is holding the reigns, only letting out a little information to wet our appetites until the next flashback of information. It’s kind of like the Lost formula. And basically if that turns you off, well, you might as well leave the theater because this will be a 128 minute stink fest. But if you’re into it, if you go along for the ride, man is it fun.
The dialogue is sexy and witty, and with every single word spoken you’re left to wonder: hmm is that true? Owen’s character for one, has this one speech that’s repeated 4 times throughout the film that I think is one of the greatest WTF speeches in film history. What I like so much about Duplicity is that while it’s a great espionage thriller, with twists and turns at every corner, it’s a love story told in a corporate world that’s just realistically absurd. I mean it’s like this epic battle between two companies that basically manufacture and sell toothbrushes, toilet paper, mints and dental floss, but its a billion dollar industry so these people have all this power. And all this is heightened with such tense dramatic moments, like when someone is trying to copy a piece of paper, but the copy machine is malfunctioning, and the music is tense and you wonder If they’re going to get caught, but then when you sit back and think about it you go, “it was just someone photocopying a paper. Why am I getting tense? Just fax it.” I just love how Tony Gilroy plays with just the absurdity of everyday life and how epic we make of such simple things.
I also love Gilroy’s brilliant look at our consumerist culture and how we prize such ridiculous things. For instance, at one point Owen’s character is working for a frozen pizza company, and as he talks about it he grows more and more excited. He’s like, “this is a billion dollar industry. I mean, the company has just come out with a way to put ham and pineapple on frozen pizza. It’s going to totally revolutionize the frozen pizza industry.” And Owen is just saying all these things with a straight face as his brilliant spy is getting more and more into the world of frozen pizza, you just can’t help but laugh along with Robert’s character who thinks this is all ludicrous.
Let’s talk a little about the actors. Owen’s and Roberts last paired together in 2004’s Closer which I really disliked, but none of that was their fault. In this film, wow, they smolder off the screen. They play this great Cat and Mouse game so well, trying to out seduce one another, that I really think that I haven’t seen such a hot pair on screen since Jolie and Pitt in Mr. and Mrs. Smith. However, while Owen’s and Roberts were good, the ones who stole the movie for me were Giamatti and Wilkinson as just these middle aged corporate loud mouths. I mean I’m not kidding when I say the opening 5 minute title sequence of this film is epic. It’s a slow-mo fight between Giamatti and Wilkinson who square off on a rain-soaked tarmac in front of their corporate jets as their members of their board look on in horror. Giamatti kicks Wilkinson in the shin. Wilkinson pushes Giamatti back and then it’s this terrible tug of war as two old middle age men bounce off one another, flailing their arms helplessly. It’s real, it’s raw, and it’s the greatest fight scene I have ever seen. Seriously I couldn’t stop laughing.
Duplicity basically asks the question: if everyone is lying to you who can you trust? All this is wrapped around a jazzy-cool approach similar to Clooney’s Ocean Eleven films. It’s like bossa nova, laid back, chilled, hip and cool. I love this kind of stuff. I like my scripts smart and I like when my movies try to outsmart me, although the ending is slightly choreographed. Still, I really enjoyed this movie. It does have its pacing issues and I found the second to third act a bit slow, but none of this hampered the enjoyment I got from this film so I give it the rating: bring your lunch from home because you do not want to miss this one. It’s sexy, fun, and smart.