Duplicity Duped Me!

Running time 125 minutes
Written and
directed by Tony Gilroy
Starring Julia Roberts, Clive Owen, Tom Wilkinson, Paul Giamatti

Tony Gilroy’s Duplicity, from his own screenplay, strikes me, at least, as an unmitigated and premeditated disaster. I say premeditated because in a recent New Yorker profile of him by D. T. Max, Mr. Gilroy described his modus operandi in great detail, and I found it somewhat condescending to contemporary movie audiences. How? By complaining how hard it is to keep them interested after they have feasted on the “mixed-up time schemes of Memento, Amores Perros and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” all of which are comparatively linear when compared to the strenuous convolutions of Duplicity.

The film stars Clive Owen and Julia Roberts as first competing, and eventually cooperating, corporate spies caught in the middle of a fierce feud between two rival industrialists, played in rambunctious fashion by Paul Giamatti and Tom Wilkinson. Indeed, they are introduced to us through a violent airport brawl filmed in silent slow motion to magnify the grotesqueness of their zealous enmity. Unfortunately, these are not the best of times to make jokes about global business tycoons, though Mr. Giamatti and Mr. Wilkinson are blue-ribbon performers equal to any task, however outdated it may be.

By the same token, Mr. Owen and Ms. Roberts would be close to ideal casting for any less repetitious roles than they are burdened with here. How repetitious? Well, Mr. Owen’s Ray Koval sets out to pick up Ms. Roberts’ Claire Stenwick no fewer than five times, in Dubai, Rome, New York, London and Miami, with much the same routine. We are never sure who is stalking whom, and for what purpose. Indeed, when Steven Spielberg was approached to direct the Gilroy screenplay, he found it so confusing that he had to retire to his DreamWorks hideaway to have people read it to him aloud and then discuss it before he turned it down, in one of his more savvy decisions.

Nonetheless, Mr. Gilroy has gained considerable credibility in the industry with the screenplays he’s supplied for such critical and commercial hits as Dolores Claiborne (1995), The Devil’s Advocate (1997) and the Jason Bourne franchise. Finally, he was allowed to direct one of his screenplays, and the successful result was the 2007 George Clooney vehicle, Michael Clayton, which I admired enough to place on my own 10-best list.

So what has gone wrong with Duplicity? I can only go with my gut feeling: that Mr. Gilroy has outsmarted himself by pulling too many switches in his narrative. He then fails to recover by coming up with a smash ending that pulls all the scattered pieces together. This is to say that the industrial “secret” that everyone is seeking so desperately turns out to be small potatoes in the ultimate scheme of things. I won’t tell you what that secret is; if you are venturesome enough to ignore my sage advice, you can’t accuse me of giving away the plot. I sincerely hope, however, that Mr. Gilroy’s setback (if, indeed, Duplicity turns out to be a setback), in his mistaking mere facetiousness for genuine humor, will only be temporary.

asarris@observer.com Duplicity Duped Me!