"Duplicity" thinks it's a far more clever movie than it actually is.
Oh, it has plenty of head-snapping reversals, the movie moves that turn audience assumptions on their head. Are Ray (Clive Owen) and Claire (Julia Roberts), the superspies turned corporate espionage artists, trustworthy? How can we trust them if they don't trust each other? Is the dangerous game they're playing rigged against them from the outset?
Unfortunately, once the audience realizes just how deep these characters' reservoir of misanthropy and self-approval runs — they're the type who proclaim, in all sincerity, "Nobody trusts anybody, we just cop to it" — the endgame is entirely obvious.
Beware the director who dislikes his creations: He is utterly predictable.
Tony Gilroy is the director and writer here, and "Duplicity" is his follow-up to 2007's surprise hit "Michael Clayton." His new film takes the nonchronological structure of "Michael Clayton" and ramps it up a notch, sending the viewer around the world and back in 18 months. It's a stylistic quirk designed to inspire vertigo in the audience, who must be kept off-balance lest they figure out what's going on before they're supposed to.
"Duplicity" opens in Dubai, where debonair MI6 agent Ray is seduced, drugged and robbed of vital state secrets by Claire, his CIA counterpart. They meet again some years later in the U.S., both now private-sector intel operatives for a massive American company; they are quite dismayed to have been teamed up in a task to take down said company's rival.
Or are they? Is this really the first time they've reunited? Of course not, and here begin a series of flashback/flash-forwards that move the plot forward. Every time a snippet of info is revealed, it becomes obvious that even more is hidden behind the curtain.
It's a fun conceit, the sort of story screenwriters dream of crafting in order to show off their aptitude, and it wouldn't be shocking to see this up for best original screenplay come next year's Academy Awards. However, it doesn't translate terribly well to the screen, and the cleverness isn't helped by the fact that the movie isn't nearly as funny as Mr. Gilroy wishes it was.
There are humorous moments, to be sure - Ray getting wrapped up in a war between rival pizza companies, for example, or the struggles of a hotheaded company chief (played by Paul Giamatti) to vanquish his enemy (played by the always-excellent Tom Wilkinson) by nicking his supersecret new product.
The film has a meta quality that gets in the way of both the humor and the drama; at one point, Ray and Claire are literally reading from a script and giving each other direction. It's a little jarring and an entirely unnecessary reminder that we're watching a movie, the kind of postmodern wink that stands out for its showy cleverness without adding much to the action.
RATING: PG-13 (language and some sexual content)
CREDITS: Written and directed by Tony Gilroy
RUNNING TIME: 125 minutes
WEB SITE: www.duplicitymovie.net
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS