Head Games

Is 'Duplicity' too smart for its own good?

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While it’s my intention to not give away any crucial plot points about Duplicity in this commentary, you might want to see it before reading. It’s eminently worth the ticket price, too — a relentlessly smart thriller of a con-game movie, certainly the best Hollywood movie of the still-young new year. But is it too smart for its own good?

We want smart mainstream Hollywood movies — at least we say we do. But maybe one reason we get so few is that they raise our expectations. Good screenwriting is incredibly hard because we see and fault even the most minor shortcomings. By contrast, in a more typically mediocre Hollywood product, we are grateful when there are good scenes, usually involving effective characters or snatches of resonant dialogue.

Duplicity is written and directed by Tony Gilroy. His father is Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Frank Gilroy (The Subject Was Roses), whose own film, 1971’s Desperate Characters, is an overlooked gem about the angst of modern urban life.

Tony Gilroy once wrote a preposterously portentous supernatural thriller (1997’s The Devil’s Advocate) but then showed a knack for adding depth and intelligence to a genre film with 2000’s Proof of Life, in which Russell Crowe tries to free a kidnapped American businessman from guerrillas in a Colombia-like South American country.

And Gilroy’s somber, gritty, thought-provoking scripts for the revived Bourne movies — a clear retort to the crap that James Bond movies had become — are touchstones for this decade’s more ambitious thrillers. Their success gave him the clout to write and direct 2007’s Michael Clayton.

Ostensibly, Duplicity is more escapist than Michael Clayton, which was also a thriller but also overtly about corruption within America’s big business firms and the fat-cat corporate law practices that do their bidding. That’s one reason Michael Clayton was released during Oscar season while Duplicity came out in March.

Still, Duplicity does have a political point to make: Corporations (in this case consumer-goods manufacturers) pursue market advantage and industrial espionage with all the trickery of the CIA working double and triple agents to stage a coup.

I never bought Michael Clayton’s final denouement — it felt stagy in a movie that otherwise seemed carefully realistic. But this one works … almost.

Duplicity begins with Clive Owen and Julia Roberts as government intelligence agents Ray and Claire — he British; she American. She sleeps with him in order to drug him and steal some information.

This establishes a cat-and-mouse relationship between the two as they both wind up leaving their governments and working in New York for the same corporation, Equikrom. That company uses her as a double agent — a mole placed inside the espionage unit of its chief rival, Burkett & Randle (and, yes, you can see where Procter & Gamble might have been an inspiration for Gilroy).

Ray and Claire have decided to work together — and maybe even fall in love with each other — and scam their employer. But maybe, just maybe, they’re really scamming (and eavesdropping on) each other? It’s sort of like The Thrill of it All meets The Conversation.

Not to recount the various plot tricks and, as Gilroy calls them, “story reversals,” but the movie is as twisty as Bourne yet always light-on-its-feet breezy. A fine supporting cast that includes Paul Giamatti, Tom Wilkinson, Denis O’Hare, Kathleen Chalfant and Carrie Preston supports Owen and Roberts.

As it goes on, you start to get that every little thing counts; Gilroy allows no careless incongruities to interfere with our acceptance of the tricky storytelling. The film almost never lets you confidently get ahead of it — except once, if you’re paying close attention. And since the movie encourages you to pay close attention, that’s a problem.

Late in the movie, a Burkett & Randle espionage supervisor calls Claire — believing her a loyal employee — to the building because another employee has been caught trying to steal information about a new product from a super-secret file. That file, unopened, sits on a desk while the supervisor leaves the room while Claire guards the traitorous employee. That’s the break she’s been waiting for to steal the info.

But wait: This company is cautious — make that paranoid — about protecting its information. It seems odd that the supervisor would leave it there for even a second. It’s not in keeping with his behavior and the corporate culture.

In a lesser movie, we’d just chalk that up to the screenwriter conveniently overlooking something, either accidentally or intentionally, to make the plot work. But so far Gilroy hasn’t overlooked anything. Why now, at such an important juncture? Could it be intentional?

Maybe film schools should teach their students the perils of being too smart. People start to anticipate and expect your high standards, which makes it hard to let a plot point or two slide. On the other hand, it’s a nice problem to have. Better than a dumb movie.

Read Cole Smithy's review of DUPLICITY here.
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