Would you think I was gaming you if I said Duplicity — which could well win the award for worst movie trailer of 2009 — is actually a clever, classy spy comedy?
You’d never know it from those unfunny previews, which have been running in theatres for months now. I’d begun to cringe every time I saw Julia Roberts smugly dangling a thong while a gobsmacked Clive Owen, looking like he’s had his pocket picked in a brothel, exclaims, “You’re gamin’ me?”
Roberts and Owen are enjoyably edgy as devious spies-cum-lovers, while writer-director Tony Gilroy has given them a cunning plot to manoeuvre in.However, the film turns out to be far more sly and subtle than that sleazy snippet suggests. Roberts and Owen are enjoyably edgy playing devious spies-cum-lovers, while writer-director Tony Gilroy has given them a deliciously cunning plot to manoeuvre in.
This is the flipside to Gilroy’s Oscar-nominated Michael Clayton, his 2007 directing debut. While that film dealt dramatically with the lack of corporate ethics, Duplicity gives the same theme a comic spin. His villains here are a couple of rival soap companies who’ve turned to industrial espionage to undermine one another. Roberts and Owen portray a pair of former government agents who’ve gone private and sold their skills to the two competitors, while at the same time playing them for their own duplicitous ends.
Claire Stenwick (Roberts), ex-CIA, has been working as a spy for Burkett & Randle, a New York-based beauty-products manufacturer headed by visionary CEO Howard Tully (Tom Wilkinson). Ray Koval (Owen), once employed by Britain’s MI6, has just landed a job with Equikrom, run by Tully’s squirrelly arch-enemy, Richard Garsik (Paul Giamatti).
One of Ray’s first assignments as a corporate spook is to pick up some stolen papers from an Equikrom mole inside Burkett & Randle. To his surprise, the mole turns out to be Claire, a woman he has an awkward history with. Back in their government days, Claire seduced Ray during a drunken Fourth of July party at the U.S. embassy in Dubai, drugging him and swiping some valuable military data in his possession. He’s been waiting to run into her again, both to get his revenge and because he remains infatuated with her.
At least, this is what we’re led to believe. I won’t go any further with the synopsis, since the onion-like plot relies on a steady peeling away of deceptions. Suffice it to say that Claire and Ray become embroiled in Equikrom’s efforts to steal a secret formula for a hair-restoring shampoo from Burkett & Randle. As they engage in some entertaining cloak-and-dagger antics – which involve photocopier hacking and other offbeat forms of office sabotage – a succession of globe-hopping flashbacks reveal that the two spies are not all they appear to be.
Gilroy seems to be going for a light romance/suspense comedy in the Hitchcock tradition, and he’s well served by his two leads. Owen, in particular, appears to have modeled his performance on Cary Grant in Hitchcock classics like Notorious and To Catch a Thief. He even pushes the resemblance further when Ray goes undercover as a bumbling, bespectacled doctor – a wry bit that is clearly Owen’s homage to the slapstick Grant of Bringing Up Baby. But he doesn’t need the ghost of a Hollywood icon to lean on. Owen does very well with his own brand of brooding, slightly grubby sexuality – even when he’s clean-shaven, the man looks like he needs a shave. (For a female appreciation of his masculine assets, see Katrina Onstad’s recent review of The International.)
Owen and Roberts were previously paired in the sordid drama Closer, when they made sparks fly as a couple whose marriage founders on the shoals of infidelity. Here, they mine the comedy in romantic distrust. As die-hard professional spies, Claire and Ray are so practiced in the art of deception that their relationship seesaws precariously between love and doubt. If Owen’s Ray is the slippery charmer, Roberts makes Claire enticingly enigmatic and aloof. We’ve become so accustomed to Roberts in vulnerable roles that it’s a pleasure to see her playing it cool – or mad as hell. She’s at her sexiest here when she’s boiling with anger at Owens’ dallying Ray, shooting laser-points of jealousy from her big brown eyes.
Duplicity also gets full marks for topicality. With the current economic meltdown, greedy CEOs and their shady shenanigans are a better target than ever and Gilroy picks them off with dead-accurate aim. Apart from the opening-credits scene – a slo-mo smackdown between Wilkinson and Giamatti that suggests we’re in for some broad farce – he keeps the satire sharply focused. Wilkinson, who was brilliant as the conscience-stricken lawyer in Michael Clayton, does a superb about-face as the silk-smooth Tully, the type of putatively far-seeing captain of industry who spews philosophical vacuities. However, it’s Giamatti who almost steals the picture as the runty, shifty-eyed Garsik, a paranoid egomaniac who enters a hall full of cheering stockholders like a rock star.
The movie also gives us a motley nest of corporate spies (including a grandmotherly Kathleen Chalfant), a wasted whiz-kid inventor (Christopher Denham, looking like a junior-edition Hunter S. Thompson) and one very funny dupe — Carrie Preston as a soft-hearted Southern gal with a taste for apple martinis who falls prey to Ray’s bogus doctor act.
Gilroy brings to the script his past experience crafting the intense Bourne screenplays. There’s a real breath-holder of a climax that walks the tight-wire between tension and farce with beautiful finesse. If the movie’s final twist is a little too neat, and a few plot threads are left dangling, I’ll gladly take that in exchange for a smart thriller with minimal violence, where people do battle with their wits, not fists and guns.
It’s also refreshing to see a spy film in which the fate of the free world isn’t at stake, just some hair follicles. While it’s a credible Holy Grail for the cosmetics industry, a cure for baldness is at the same time a nicely absurd cause for so much, um, skullduggery. Hitchcock famously referred to that sort of plot device as a “MacGuffin.” A man with a receding hairline himself, I think Hitch would have loved this one.
Duplicity opens March 20.