Window shopping ends poorly with Julia Roberts and Clive Owen in Duplicity.
Like its double-dealing protagonists, Duplicity is dedicated to gaming you. And, in a season of bang-bang shoot-em ups and bleeding superheroes, you’ll likely enjoy being played by its champagne dialogue, nimble pacing and knowingly antic relationship to a thousand and one movie genres.
Throughout the film, Duplicity director Tony Gilroy plays with cinematic codes in pursuit of his personal filmic grail, the “reversal”—a cinematic convention that uses audience expectations against themselves to create a jolt of surprise.
The film works a witty twist on the spy flick, a genre that has already been substantially bent. All of the codes of the spy thriller are in place—high tech surveillance gadgetry, counter-intelligence activity—but the struggle is not for control of the black briefcase, nuclear codes or state secrets. Rather, two multinationals and their monstrously egotistical CEOs do battle over the marketing rights to a “personal care product.” (Is the product in question a cream or a lotion? In a world where the commodity fetish is king, the difference is huge.)
That’s just the first turnaround the film rolls out. It’s also rocking the old school “screwball comedy” genre, and dealing out a disrupted and disorienting plotline like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Synecdoche, New York. The film gets great reverb from its echoing of The Lady Eve, Hitchcock, and Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass, among other diverse stylistic predecessors, but the central conceit of the film involves Duplicity’s oscillation between corporate critique and romantic comedy. The opening scene’s slow-motion face-off on the tarmac between corporate behemoths Howard Tully (Tom Wilkinson) and Dick Garsick (Paul Giamatti) creates a brilliant parody of the corporate battle drama. Interestingly, it’s this clash of industry titans that sets the stage for the erotic thriller aspect of the film.
The romantic ballet and backgammon game played between ex-MI5 operative Ray Stoval (Clive Owen) and ex-CIA agent Clare Stenwick (Julia Roberts) is ostensibly at the core of the film. Two brittle, cynical operators, Clare and Ray share a past that involves a one-night stand in Dubai, a successfully administered roofie and stolen Egyptian military codes. The result of this encounter is, of course, mutual attraction, coupled with deep suspicion and the inevitably barbed banter of sexually charged conflict. Gilroy’s screenplay keeps the turnabouts coming as the relationship unfolds. One crucial bit of dialogue between the two agents is repeated with obvious glee no less than five times in the film.
Clare: “How do I know you?”
Ray: “Wow, that’s tough. That’s a strong play…”
Clare: “You clearly have me confused with someone else.”
Ray: “You charm me, you seduce me, you screw me, then you drug me and ransack my hotel room. And how sick is this? You know the last thing I remember before I passed out was how much I liked you.”
Here Gilroy’s game of repeating dialogue is simple: How much can be done to confound the audience and still keep their allegiance?
The “chemistry” that the film so wants Roberts and Owen to share and to project as they chase through these multiple reversals is signaled by the champagne that is ever-present at their meetings. It becomes a motif for the relationship itself—intoxicating, under pressure, an accompaniment to schemes, launchings and early celebrations. And like any other uncorked bottle of the bubbly, the romance runs a bit flat by the film’s midpoint, perhaps because behind all the reversals there is nothing, really, romantically at stake. How many people truly care if Clare and Ray manage to con their way into the $40 million that they believe will allow them those nights in Rome necessary to dull their suspicion and leave them “normal” like other lovers? After the bailout and AIG meltdown, not many.
Interest in the romance may wane as Duplicity hits its center, but the film keeps its momentum, and the viewer watching, through its sheer self-conscious focus on the reversal. What will happen next? In part the key to Duplicity’s substance lies in this postmodern style. For example, editor John Gilroy’s split screen, which serves as a visual analogue to the dossiers of information amassed by corporations and couples alike is a brilliant, sparklingly dark riff on the way corporate America has begun to take itself as seriously as a John LeCarre novel. The split screen also offers a comment on the information saturation of our Google-defined age. The theme of information overload is part of the motive for the reversals of the film: The more we know, the more confused we become, until we are left marveling, like Clare and Ray in the final dénouement of the film, at the sheer complexity of systems far larger than us that have gamed us in their convolutions.
As one of the characters in Duplicity says of the primary action of the film: “We’re here trying to run a triple game with some very smart, very motivated players.” By anyone’s scorecard that’s vastly undercounting the cons the movie manages to successfully run—on its characters and for its viewers.
Duplicity is currently screening at the Carmike 10.