When you make a film as good as Michael Clayton, the expectation for your follow-up is obviously going to be very high. Tony Gilroy had been kicking around Hollywood for years as a scriptwriter, which is what made the success of his directorial debut, Clayton, that much more sweet–he’d worked for it. For his second film, Duplicity, Gilroy doesn’t tone down the intelligence of his screenwriting, but does try to fit into a more mainstream package. The result is somewhat hit-or-miss.
The story focuses on two former government agents. Ray (Clive Owen) worked for MI-6, and at social gathering in Rome years ago, he met Claire (Julia Roberts), who was then employed by the CIA. They spend one steamy night together, but when Ray wakes up, it turns out that he was nothing more than an assignment, and Claire had completed it. Cut to present day, and both Ray and Claire have quit their government jobs to work as spies for conglomerate corporations trying to get the best of one another.
Routinely, Ray and Claire run into each other again, and now it seems their on the same side. Claire is now a spy, implanted as a counterintelligence agent within a rival company. This rival company, headed by the megalomaniac Howard Tully (Tom Wilkinson), has supposedly crossed paths with a new product that may become the next biggest thing. The company employing Claire, headed by an equally narcissistic CEO named Richard Garsik (Paul Giamatti), wants their hands on this mystery product, so they hire Ray to help Claire pull it off.
There are the usual pitfalls: Ray and Claire argue, Howard and Richard do a little more than that, and of course there is a whole lot more than meets the eye. The dynamic between Ray and Claire is the film’s main plot point, but it is frequently pushed aside by long-winded flashbacks and complicated moments where we’re expected to believe what the characters are saying, because we have no idea what they’re talking about.
Now, is there some wit and charm to Duplicity? Surely. Owen and Roberts do have some chemistry–at least what they were able to scrap together, after those smolderingly damaging scenes they shared in 2004’s Closer. It’s not the intelligence of the script that has the most issues. Unfortunately for this film, it seemed to be aiming for Ocean’s Eleven in tone, when it should have been going more for more black comedy. The twists within the Ocean’s Eleven film are deceptively simple, where in Duplicity, the motifs of split screens and flashbacks can leave the audience in a tailspin.
Gilroy, for the second film in a row has been blessed with a highly enviable cast, and two legitimate movie stars in the leads. As I stated before, Owen and Roberts do have some spark together, and they use Gilroy’s sarcastic dialogue well. Their relational arguments seem sincere. Arguably, out of this whole ensemble, Paul Giamatti is the best actor–at the very least you’d have to say that he has the most range out of all the performers. Duplicity’s best moments are when Giamatti is allowed to let loose, and his one-liners are the only times when the comedy in the script truly succeeds.
Complication for the sake of complication gets to be tedious after a while, and Duplicity really stretches out its good will. After directing two films, Gilroy has already established himself as a highly-stylized filmmaker, using visual motifs and break-neck editing. This film doesn’t take itself nearly as seriously as Michael Clayton, but I don’t think it is expected to. You can’t forget that Gilroy made his bones by writing films like The Cutting Edge and Extreme Measures. Gilroy is above those scripts, but not all the time.
Written and Directed by Tony Gilroy