– Summary –
Director : Tony Gilroy
Year Of Release : 2009
Principal Cast : Julia Roberts, Clive Owen, Paul Giamatti, Tom Wilkinson, Denis O’Hare, Kathleen Chalfant, Thomas McCarthy, Wayne Duvall, Carrie Preston, Christopher Denham.
Approx Running Time : 125 Minutes
Synopsis: Two competing cosmetic companies try to outwit each other using covert surveillance and teams of hired spies, when a new kind of product is developed that will not only revolutionize the cosmetic industry, but make some people very very wealthy at the same time.
What we think : Curly, twisting, labyrinthine plot, with so many plot points I can’t reveal here in the summary that it makes actually explaining this film to newcomers quite difficult. Roberts and Owen have a great chemistry, and Oscar nominated screenwriter-turned-director Tony Gilroy completely bamboozles both his viewers and the cast (from the looks of it) with this incredibly devious story. Essentially a convoluted heist flick, Duplicity is one of the more intelligent variations on this theme. Well worth your while, even if I can’t say much without spoiling it, and a film with one of those knock-your-socks-off endings you’ll be telling people about for ages.
Well, this is going to be hard. How to tell you what I thought of Duplicity without giving away vital clues and plot twists. This film bends and turns like a cliff-side highway during the rainy season; centered around the conceit that a cosmetic company has begun production on a fabulous new project sends it chief rival into a frenzy of commercial piracy. Julia Roberts and Clive Owen play the two agents working for each of the competing companies as they try and one-up each other to obtain the secret code to a new line of cosmetics worth billions of dollars. Doesn’t sound like a great film so far, right? Cosmetics? Can’t they come up with something else? Sure, they could, but the real story isn’t who is going after the “secret code”, but how and why. Duplicity isn’t a straightforward film, and it’s certainly not designed for people of limited intellect or cookie-cutter film-making: this is highbrow spy versus spy stuff that makes Oceans 11 look like a trip to Santa’s Cave. With the twisty-turny plot of this film meaning that almost any information I give out is spoiler-worthy, I think it only prudent to say now, before the main review section, that I’ll be giving things away a little as I go. So if you want to be surprised, don’t read on. Consider this your warning.
When he’s hired by an agency working for a leading cosmetic company, former MI6 agent Ray Koval (Owen) is seemingly on the path to riches: he’s trying to steal information about a new kind of lotion being developed that will be worth a lot of money. When he runs into CIA agent Claire Stenwick some years since their last “encounter”, he realises that the race to secure the prize is not quite as clear-cut as he thought. However, as Duplicity continues, we soon learn that both Koval and Stenwick are working together, in a secret alliance that their employers know nothing about. Howard Tully (Tom Wilkinson) and Dick Garsik (Paul Giamatti) play competing CEO’s of their respective companies, each bitter enemies and sworn to defeat the other. So when Garsik discovers that Tully is about to reveal a new product that is set to revolutionize the industry, he stops at nothing to uncover what it is. Which is the premise of the film. Koval, working for Garsik through an intelligence company, and Stenwick, working as a double agent in Tully’s company, play off against each other in the ultimate ruse to glean information, the information which will make them very rich. But, like any good heist film, there are red herrings and double plays everywhere. And I mean everywhere. This film is sometimes so baffling that it takes a moment or four to adequately comprehend exactly what it is you’ve seen. It’s like they’ve taken all the plot twists of the three Oceans 11 films and squeezed them into a single, 2 hour movie. By the end, you’re likely to be utterly lost, or incredibly confused, whichever is easier.
Director Tony Gilroy, who gave us the brilliantly scripted Michael Clayton, as well as scribe work on the Bourne films, Armageddon, The Devil’s Advocate and even Dolores Claiborne, has produced a highly intelligent, craftily plotted, incoherently tense con-thriller, led by two major stars in Owen and Roberts. Roberts and Owen are dynamic together, their screen chemistry often at odds with what the story asks of them, but palpable underneath regardless. They play off each other with a natural charm, a warmth and genuine screen star-power that many lesser films would kill for. Gilroy understands that his central characters need to interact, and creates ways of doing so that feel natural and realistic, rather than forced. The co-star roster is equally up to the challenge, although I’ll admit that much of the supporting cast (outside of Wilkinson and Giamatti) is unknown to me. Giamatti gives his biting sarcasm to the role of Garsik so well it’s scary: he utterly inhabits his character. Wilkinson, as Tully, gets less to do as the scheming corporate giant, but he delivers his own performance with relish when given the opportunity. Gilroy has recognized that the film relies wholly on its cast to deliver a certain performance, for this isn’t a film with explosions and gunplay. It’s a con job with brains. So he opts out of ballsy brandishments, opting for dialogue to engage the audience.
And engage it does. For those of you seeking refuge from the trials of our world with a brainless action flick, Duplicity isn’t for you. My esteemed colleague over at Moviesmackdown.com, Sherry Coben, wrote about this film thusly: “Duplicity demands a viewer’s fully engaged brain, something movie audiences are not often required to bring along with them to the multiplex.” And never has a comment been more true. You need to be switched on to fully appreciate Duplicity’s many intricacies, and of them there are many. Many many. And just when you think the bait-and-switch routine has run it’s course, there’s another to contend with. This isn’t a film you can duck to the kitchen to make a coffee through. This requires your complete attention. Gilroy may not be a master of action or cinematic aggrandizing; where he succeeds is in the dialogue, and Duplicity is replete with it. Character development, as opposed to random violence and action, is the order of the day, as Owen and Roberts spar verbally throughout. Their material is witty, tense and at times acerbic, with just enough danger inflected throughout to throw even the audience for a loop when things don’t turn out the way they expect. The wide-eyed enthusiasm Owen sports in his new a-list status as a movie star is almost removed, and in its place is the calm, semi-detached persona he’s become known for. I’d almost go as far as to say Owen has played the same style of character in every film he appears in, but he does it so well it’s still enjoyable. Roberts, as usual, is luminous, but I will admit to lamenting her choice not to appear in a film of the caliber of Erin Brockovich in the last few years. She almost appears to be slumming it here, as her character isn’t a real stretch for her as an actress.
Duplicity is slickly edited by Gilroy’s brother John, and features a sublime score by James Newton Howard, although if you think you’ve heard the score before somewhere, it’s eerily similar in jazzy tone to Ocean’s 11 and various other espionage thrillers of late. It’s hardly new and exciting, James, but it does suit the material. Oscar winning cinematographer (for There Will Be Blood) Robert Elswit lenses the film with an assured eye, the dark tones of the present contrasting with the breezy lightness of Rome (set earlier) and Dubai (on which the film opens). I was more impressed with John Gilroy’s editing, however, since the corners this film goes around are sharp as needles, to be sure. Gilroy #2 handles the pacing and scripting of this film with expert ease, never giving the audience a moment to breathe during this dense, information heavy film. He flashes backwards, sideways and forwards to develop the story, and although the story is fairly straightforward if you played it chronologically, Gilroy doesn’t give us that simplicity. He makes us work for the information, we have to watch this film in as much as we want to know what’s going on. It’s a little like watching Chris Nolan’s Memento from a few years back. It’s that same “don’t look away or you might miss something” cleverness at work. I won’t say that Duplicity works as well as Memento did, but it comes pretty close. Director Gilroy straddles a fine line between being too clever by half, and not clever enough, although some could argue he destroys any audience ability to understand what’s happening with his often rapid-fire twists and reveals.
Duplicity isn’t a film for simpletons. You need to be switched on to watch it. If you’re not, or if you lack the capacity to understand complicated espionage films, then perhaps avoid this film. A rewarding experience awaits a more discerning viewer, so I can utterly recommend you give this film a shot. Similar in tone to the other Clive Owen heist flick, Inside Man, and his other recent thriller The International, Duplicity is intellectually taxing in the extreme. By the end you’ll feel like you’ve gone through the wringer, in a good way. I must mention the ending: it’s not a slam bang explosion fest, nor is it as brilliant a twist ending as anything Steven Soderbergh cooked up in the Oceans films, but it’s still a great twist. I think many will be offput by Gilroy’s insistent flouting of the laws of time, his resistance to resisting the urge to fill his story with twist after twist, but if you’re after a sly, devilishly good con-film, Duplicity is one I can recommend with my heartiest surly guffaw. Enjoy.