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Your Aim's As Bad As Your Cooking, Sweetheart

By Ted Boynton | Film | March 23, 2009 |

By Ted Boynton | Film | March 23, 2009 |

I like to imagine that the studio meeting for Duplicity, director and screenwriter Tony Gilroy’s corporate espionage picture, went something like this:

Studio Suit No. 1: We’re looking at a nifty corporate spy thing, sort of Mr. and Mrs. Smith meets Confidence.
Studio Suit No. 2: Is this the one where we have Clive Owen and Julia Roberts attached already? Let’s make sure Gilroy goes for that Thomas Crowne Affair vibe.
Suit No. 1: First Thomas Crowne or second Thomas Crowne?
Suit No. 2: How about a little of both?
Suit No. 1: Why not? But we want it to seem fun and sophisticated, like the viewer is in on the joke. Sort of like Out of Sight. We’ll throw in some artsy touches like breaking the screen into separate boxes. Groove some snare drum on the score to make it feel Rat Packy. Mix upper and lower case letters in the credits. Shit like that.
Suit No. 2: Yeah, and flashbacks — mix up the story with some flashbacks. People always think movies are smart when they’re told out of order.
Suit No. 1: Flashbacks. I like where you’re going.
Suit No. 2: But I’m thinking more Ocean’s 11. You do know Out of Sight lost money, right?
Suit No. 1: Yeah, every time I hear someone say “Soderbergh’s masterpiece” I wonder if they’re the same idiots who think Coraline is better than Madagascar. Artfuckers.
Suit No. 2: Get some Ocean’s 13 in there, too. But not Ocean’s 12, that thing blew. Who’s the support again?
Suit No. 1: Paul Giamatti and Tom Wilkinson — a regular Murderer’s Row.
Suit No. 2: Geez, those two are awesome! Maybe we can get the two of them their own movie.
Suit No. 1: ?
Suit No. 2: Just kidding! Tell Giamatti to ham it up some, I don’t want to see his [/airquotes] Inside the Actor’s Asshole bullshit. Same for Wilkinson.
Suit No. 1: Got it.
Suit No. 2: Oh, and make sure to get Clive in a tux in there somewhere. We need to remind everyone that he was almost James Bond.
Suit No. 1: Sure thing. It feels a little like James Bond, actually.
Suit No. 2: Pierce Brosnan James Bond or Daniel Craig James Bond? Because I really prefer that Goldeneye feel.
Suit No. 1: Oh, yeah, Brosnan Bond for sure.
Suit No. 2: Cool. Wanna play some doucheball later?
Suit No. 1: Fo’ shizzle.

And … scene!

Duplicity, a middling two-hour timewaster, is composed of many parts from many movies, stitched together into a whole that isn’t nearly as clever and pretty as the sum of its clever, pretty parts. Derivative doesn’t even begin to describe how reliant this movie is on other people’s ideas, and while it’s decent enough to pass the time, it’s depressing to consider that Gilroy, the guy who wrote The Bourne Identity and Michael Clayton, couldn’t come up with some fresh material for his loaded cast. It’s as if someone gathered parts from a hundred different types of airplanes, then expertly assembled them into a sort of Frankenjet that taxis up and down the runway just fine but can’t get off the ground because one wing is from a Concorde and the other from a Piper Cub. But man do these tray tables work great!

Clive Owen and Julia Roberts star as romantically linked but mutually mistrustful spies who retire from government work to paper their nests with more lucrative espionage for private business concerns. Giamatti’s hammy, arrogant CEO hires them on for Equicrom Corporation to steal an important product design from Equicrom’s corporate rival Burkett Randle, helmed by equally venal and power-hungry CEO Tom Wilkinson. Roberts goes undercover at Burkett Randle, and soon enough Equicrom has its objective in sight. Problems emerge, however, as it becomes apparent to both Owen and Roberts that neither can or should trust the other. From there, Duplicity turns into a somewhat tiresome game of “who’s zooming who?” Aided by the aforementioned flashbacks, Gilroy plots a series of hairpin turns in the story as Owen and Roberts scheme not just to get the goods from Burkett Randle but also to avoid getting schemed by each other while possibly scheming Giamatti. Or are they?

Unfortunately, Owen and Roberts lack the chemistry needed to suggest that they might risk trusting each other long enough to end up together, and Roberts is terribly miscast in the conniving sexpot role usually reserved for Angelina Jolie. Despite that, as someone who has no use for Julia Roberts whatsoever, I was surprised to find myself grudgingly admiring her effort here. Much of the time she has little to do other than scowl, but that’s on the screenwriter; when the dialogue and plot give her the opportunity, Roberts makes the most of her cynical agent and keeps us guessing about her motives and intentions. Surprisingly, it’s Owen who disappoints here, phoning in a performance that’s a great deal more Beyond Borders than Inside Man Perhaps he was disappointed to show up on set and find Roberts there instead of Jolie, but Owen puzzlingly sleepwalks through the type of role he was born to play. And if he can’t be bothered to care, why should we?

Duplicity isn’t without its charms, and Gilroy repeatedly shows off his skills as one of the better dialogue writers in movies. Wilkinson’s and Giamatti’s characters in particular are fun and accessible, and Owen’s and Roberts’ interactions with each other and with the other members of their espionage team are well-written. Occasionally Duplicity threatens to capture the elusive magic of Gilroy’s work in gems such as Michael Clayton and Dolores Claiborne. Every time the film begins to find its groove, however, Gilroy compulsively throws in another gratuitous plot twist or flashback to break up his own rhythm.

It doesn’t help that the movie’s central theme grows irritatingly tiresome very quickly. I lost count of the number of Owen-Roberts “how can we trust each other if we can’t trust each other?” exchanges, and neither their romance nor their scheme is compelling enough to carry the weight of all the plot devices and bored-looking antics involved. Duplicity doesn’t have the fate of the world hanging in the balance; there’s no horrible catastrophe descending if Owen and Roberts fail or get caught. As in Ocean’s 11, these are just thieves plotting with other thieves to steal from some other thieves, so it’s only through sheer force of personality that they can make the viewer give a damn about what’s happening. Unlike that other film, the personalities involved just aren’t enough to get there.

Duplicity has some fun moments, and it’s not terrible by any stretch of the imagination. There’s a brilliant scene near the beginning that establishes the brute hatred between Giamatti and Wilkinson, a silent, slow motion sequence illustrating their drive to destroy each other that’s almost worth the price of admission on its own. Owen occasionally rouses from his slumber long enough to deliver a pleasing one-liner in his patented husky burr, and the various role players in Equicrom’s spy team deliver crackerjack performances worthy of membership in the Danny Ocean Casino Robbery All-Stars. It’s all just a bit too familiar to succeed without a cohesive, compelling center, and that key element went missing somewhere between Gilroy’s head and the big screen.

Ted Boynton is a dedicated sot who plans to leave his barstool to stalk Whit Stillman, now that someone has found Whit Stillman. Ted also manages to hold down a job and a wife, three hours each per day, whether they need it or not. Readers may scold, hector, admonish or taunt Ted by e-mailing him at [email protected]