02 May 2009


Written & Directed by: Tony Gilroy
Full credits at IMDb

The screenplay’s the thing in Duplicity, Tony Gilroy’s bleak but breezy exercise in storytelling sophistication. About corporate espionage and the globe-hopping escapades of high-class sexgod megastars (Clive Owen and Julia Roberts), the film, unlike Gilroy’s previous Michael Clayton, is less concerned with exposing a moralistic portrait of a corrupted culture than with testing how complexly constructed a narrative can be before the center cannot hold and things fall apart. Gilroy cross-cuts between incongruous temporal planes, he leaks essential information gradually, he upends what we think we know with flashbacks, and he persistently realigns the character’s loyalties. The story’s joints creak under that kind of pressure, those gutsy narrative demands, but Gilroy’s serviceable direction manages to keep together the precision-crafted machine—his scriptopuzzle. And the film’s pleasures derive from watching him get away with it, from watching it unfold successfully.

Duplicity’s heroes meet as bonafide spies—Owens is MI6, Roberts is CIA. Years later, they’re both working for a consumer-goods corporation at war (“old school espionage—Moscow rules”) with its competitor: think Johnson and Johnson vs. Proctor and Gamble. Gilroy hints at a civilization, or at least a business culture, in tatters: no one trusts anyone else, duplicity has replaced innovation, the CEOs have body doubles, the offices have thumb-scanner security, and each company has a large team of hi-tech hackers and con artists devoted to stealing their counterpart’s every file: travel records and expense accounts, not to mention, say, new research and development. That sort of cynicism, combined with a pulsating, tick-tock score, evokes a 70s thriller, but it’s misleading; at heart, the movie is more 1930’s, a screwball comedy built around Roberts-and-Owens’ measured suavity, rapid-fire banter and general movie-star appeal. The two characters use mistrust as an aphrodisiac, deceiving one another and everyone around them. They are playing a very similar game to the con Gilroy is playing on us: we can’t trust a damn thing he says. We are at his mercy, the film a cinematic dominatrix; it’s a turn-on, albeit a shallow and ephemeral thrill. Grade: B+

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