The most stimulating and funniest thriller so far this year is Tony Gilroy's Duplicity, a terrific film for fans of complicated spy pictures. Unbelievably, this often-hilarious romantic comedy didn't take off in the theaters, a fact that doesn't augur well for mainstream feature films pitched above the seventh grade level. As if atoning for his scripts for the wildly popular Bourne movies, writer-director Gilroy (Michael Clayton) has fashioned a credible nail-biter with laughs, attractive characters and a little sex. More importantly, he's resurrected a light tone that's practically unheard of in today's "serious-escapist" movie fare. Film fans looking for an update of, say Charade will know what I'm talking about. If you actually have heard of Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, let me reach a bit farther into the past to resurrect Ernst Lubitsch's incredibly witty comedy about jewel thieves, Trouble in Paradise. Gilroy's Duplicity isn't quite that elegant, but compared to today's average self-important pea-brained thrillers, it's an instant classic.
MI6 operative Ray Koval (Clive Owen of Children of Men and The International) wants to quit his job and use his considerable skills to get enough money to retire early, preferably to a Caribbean resort. Ray's ambition becomes a possibility when he meets Claire Stenwick (Julia Roberts), a clever counter-agent who repeatedly gets the better of him. Claire and Ray fall deeply in love even though neither can tell when the other is "gaming" the relationship ... i.e., faking some scam, engaging in an elaborate lie or using espionage tactics to investigate a private suspicion.
The spy duo finds their opportunity to get rich by inserting themselves into the elaborate industrial security teams of two major consumer product companies. Burkett & Randle C.E.O. Howard Tully (Tom Wilkinson) and Equikrom chief Richard Garsik (Paul Giamatti) would do anything to trounce the other and are constantly harassing each other's companies with underhanded sneaky tricks. B&R actually bought a landfill dump just to be able to go through Equicom's garbage. Garsik's industrial spies get wind of Tully's mysterious new breakthrough product, and the race is on to steal it. Claire works as a double agent in B&R while Ray acts as the "closer" for Equikrom. Besides making a convincing showing in their individual roles as intelligence operatives -- scheming while under close scrutiny from their highly trained colleagues -- Claire and Ray must find a way to purloin the formula for the secret product -- whatever it is -- so they can sell it for millions to a third party. All that may be the easy part, as the spies/lovers can never be too sure that their partner is faking the romance and planning to cheat the other!
Duplicity doesn't lack for smarts or wit. It begins with a terrific slow motion fight between C.E.O.s Tully and Garsik as they wait beside their corporate jets -- the images reduce the ethics of big business to an infantile squabble in a sandbox. It looks as if Equikrom and Burkett & Randle spend $50 on security & espionage for every penny they put into their limitless product lines. The out 'n' out corporate war involves setting up secret spy nerve centers, paying to plant expensive sleeper agents and going to ridiculous extremes to tap into the other's phones and data lines. Equikrom has a number of B&R's scanners rigged to print out duplicates of B&R documents as quickly as B&R scans them.
Better yet, Gilroy gives his stars some of the smartest dialogue heard in years. Clive Owen and Julia Roberts shine as a matched pair of shifty "gamers", toying with one another out of habit and ego necessity. Ray nails Claire with sexual digs just as often as Claire skewers Ray with her own verbal jibes. It's essential that we like our lover-spies, because they're at heart little more than a pair of sneak thieves who think they're above the rest of square humanity. Their "meet cute", as Ray describes it, involves being drugged and having his hotel room ransacked. When they meet again, it's never clear if it's pure coincidence or if one of the parties is running a con on the other. The good natured, sexually charged word games that accompany these meetings make Duplicity resemble virtually extinct examples of film art like the above-mentioned Ernst Lubitch film. Ray and Claire play the same underhanded tricks on each another that Lubitch's suave jewel thieves did; the humor is that, for these amorous conmen, duplicity is a major part of their sex appeal.
A particular funny dialogue interchange between Ray and Claire is repeated several times, each time for a different purpose -- romantic, sarcastic, and "espionage-tactical". It's a sufficiently original gag to put up there with high-grade Lubitsch. It's also a barometer for viewer appeal: if you don't know why they're repeating the same words after the third iteration, Duplicity is not for you. Clever? Too clever?
Ray remains in our good graces despite the fact that he's a dastardly dirty tricks expert. Equikrom hired him because he's an expert seducer of women. In one hilarious scene Ray maneuvers B&R travel agent Barbara Bofferd (Carrie Preston, marvelous) from a bar stool to sex in her office in just a couple of hours. Even funnier is the look on Claire's face when, in her capacity as a top B&R security officer, she has to review the evidence of her partner seducing Ms. Bofferd. The woman claims that it was the best night of her life, and she'd do it all over again without even blinking!
Duplicity doesn't play to dummies or to people who want movies to spoon-feed them narrative pabulum and then be congratulated for following "complicated" plots (Paging Mr. Bourne!) . It takes about twenty minutes to figure out the pattern of flashbacks that stretch back seven or eight years from the 2008 present to Ray and Claire's various earlier meetings. Everything is there for viewers who pay attention, so if you like to talk through movies or do Sudokus at the same time, Duplicity ain't for you. I found some of the editorial tricks with multi-screens occasionally distracting, which is probably a subjective problem. When the screen repeatedly shrinks down, making the scene a box within a box, I tend to compare aspect ratios to see if the movie is being projected at its full width!
I've also heard some sniping about the ending, a finish that seemed entirely appropriate to the film's theme of gaming the corporate system. All the pieces of Duplicity's splendid spy satire fit together quite well; it would be a shame for studios and marketers to reject smart projects like this one because Fred and Wilma Flintstone won't "get it". The audience I saw the film with howled with approval. They enjoyed the baronial Tom Wilkinson and the neurotic Paul Giamatti almost as much as they did the romantic leads.
Universal's Blu-ray of the funny, smart romantic thriller Duplicity is the razor sharp transfer one expects of a new film release. One wonders if the digital labs are routinely mastering video directly from digital intermediates now, instead of actually transferring film. If so, I'd better make a change in my terminology. The attractive cinematography takes us to Dubai, the Caribbean and Miami, and looks great when Ray and Claire track one another on the sidewalks of New York or the back streets of Rome. The lively music stays out of the way of the all-important dialogue.
In the theater I thought the first reel or so sounded boomy, with the dialogue less distinct than I expected; I looked forward to bringing up the subtitles on the Blu-ray to make sure I didn't miss any key plot points. To my surprise, the dialogue in question sounded the same on the BD as well -- and improved after the first two scenes. Perhaps it was only my ears adjusting to this particular sound-scape?
Tony Gilroy and Editor- Co-Producer John Gilroy provide a lively commentary, the disc's only extra. I have to say that Duplicity was one of my best experiences in a theater this year. To soften my remarks about the general audience, I should admit that the film might have flattered my intelligence because I felt I understood what was going on! I'm not a big fan of Julia Roberts but she was sensational; I am a fan of Clive Owen and wish that his movies of the last three years had been bigger hits. We need more movie stars that can play sophisticated roles!
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Duplicity Blu-ray rates:
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