Directed by Tony Gilroy. Starring Clive Owen, Julia Roberts, Tom Wilkinson, Paul Giamatti, Denis O’Hare, Thomas McCarthy. (2009, PG-13, 125 min.)
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., March 20, 2009
At the beginning of Duplicity, Gilroy’s latest conspiracy thriller, the heads of two pharmaceutical companies (played by Giamatti and Wilkinson) fly at each other across an airport tarmac, crazed with rage. First they’re nose to nose, shouting, then somebody kicks somebody else’s shin, and suddenly it’s two titans of industry scrapping on the asphalt like schoolboys. Gilroy plays the scene in slo-mo, with the diegetic sound cut out (James Newton Howard’s aggressively frenetic score plays instead); the effect has something of the comic grotesquerie of a Bill Plympton cartoon. It’s a sparky way to start a picture, but the scene (over which the opening credits unspool) goes on too long and turns lumbering. A longtime screenwriter of lean and mean actioners, such as the Bourne trilogy, who made his directorial debut with 2007’s terrifically malevolent Michael Clayton, Gilroy is still trafficking in scheming and double-dealing, but he makes a bid here for something brighter, in the wink-and-a-smile tradition of Ocean’s Eleven or Out of Sight. Gilroy’s Michael Clayton star, George Clooney, headlined both of those, of course, and one can’t help but wish Gilroy had convinced him to suit up for Duplicity as well; Owen is a very fine actor, but when stripped of his signature menace, he has a slack, dopey look about him. He plays Ray Koval, an MI6 agent who butts heads with a CIA op named Claire Stenwick (Roberts, with whom Owen had more compelling chemistry in Mike Nichols' acidic Closer). The overlong film plays fast and loose with timelines – part of its fun is in its many nesting-egg reveals of who’s double-crossing who and in what year and in what exotic locale (Dubai, Rome, Cleveland) – so I will say very little about the plot itself, save that both agents join the private sector and wind up in security for the research and development departments of the opening frames’ rival pharmaceutical companies. Gilroy zings the film with tantalizing bits of absurdity (one wonders, wistfully, what the Coen brothers would have done with this material), but too often he returns to his darker, more ponderous instincts – more like a wink and a sneer – which has an enervating effect on a film that lives and dies by its fleetness of foot.