Tail-Chasing MacGuffins Hobble Owen and Roberts in 'Duplicity'

Universal Pictures

City Pulse | March 16, 2009
Writer/director Tony Gilroy -- the director of Michael Clayton and The Bourne Ultimatum -- runs his ship aground with a smarty-pants crime romance set amid the world of corporate espionage. Uber spies Ray (played by Clive Owen) and Claire (played by Julia Roberts) get themselves in deep when they decide to leverage their mutual distrust for one another as a foundation for a romantic relationship. The wrongheaded decision makes Ray, an ex-MI6 double-spy, and Claire, a former CIA agent, a double-double spy when it comes to stealing the formula for a mystery cream (or is it a lotion?) from a mega-corporation run by Tom Wilkinson's blow-hard megalomaniac Howard Tully. Paul Giamatti plays Howard's rival corporate raider Dick Garsik whose primary goal in life is to hear the sound of Howard's cojones hitting the floor. With flashbacks, flash-forwards, and few flashes of inspiration, the movie flips around like a dying fish on a balsa wood boat dock. Sure Owen, Roberts, Giamatti, and Wilkinson are all great to look at on the big screen, but that hardly makes Duplicity anything more than a barely watchable crime thriller where the biggest thrill is getting up from your seat when it's finally over.

The most captivating scene comes early on when Burkett-Randle as Howard Tully and Equikrom as Dick Garsik engage in a slow-motion brawl on a rainy airport tarmac between their private jets while each rival's personal team of advisors watch in horror from a safe distance. The giants of industry shout angry words that are left up to the audience's imagination as spit flies slowly from their contorted mouths. Once physically engaged in battle, the fight takes on a choreographed dance quality. It's perhaps the film's greatest sin that the story never finds its way back around to the how, why, and wherefore of the humorous violent confrontation. Herein lies one of Tony Gilroy's many flaws as the film's screenwriter. He never gets straight whether to focus on the uncomfortable romance between his glamorous romantic leads, or to dive into the Gates/Jobs-styled competition between Garsik and Tully. The film's muddled message about the need for trust in a relationship will be smeared into windshield wiper residue.

Ray and Claire meet cute at a pool party in Dubai in 2003 where Ray seduces the fishy Claire who enjoys their bed romp before drugging Ray and stealing secret documents taped under his hotel mattress. When Ray spots Claire years later while on a corporate intelligence mission at Manhattan's Grand Central station, he drops everything to confront her on the humiliation she put him through in Dubai. Much to Ray's consternation, Claire tries to laugh off the accusation and the amorously prickly scene becomes a touchstone for their uneasy union that follows. The dialogue is racy, but Gilroy makes one of the film's many mistakes by repurposing the scene again and again as a MacGuffin that comes back to haunt the story.

Garsik's well-fortified team of industry spies, of which Ray is the newest member, steal a copy of an in-house speech Howard Tully is about to give announcing the arrival of a new mystery product that demands extra security until its public disclosure. Garsik has a shareholder's meeting coming up soon for which he'd love to beat Tully to the punch of announcing the new mystery product for his own company. The movie rolls out with distracting flashbacks and creeping plot developments that point to Ray and/or Claire obtaining Tully's secret formula which they hope to sell and use to retire to Italy in 40 million dollars worth of wealthy obscurity.

Duplicity is so heavily back-loaded that it demands the audience take a leap of faith that all narrative debts will be paid off in a third act finale. No such luck. When the overlong movie finally gets to its climax, it's too little too late. Grand Canyon-sized plot holes get a kitchen sink caulk job that drops our four protagonists/antagonists off roughly where they began. The blurry division between the good and bad guys is a problematic issue that's never properly handled. Ostensibly Clive Owen's smooth talker Ray and Paul Giamatti's duplicitous Dick Garsik are characters we root for if only because their characters are the most pro-active of the bunch. In the end, we're left questioning how the movie evaporated in front of our eyes. It's because there wasn't much there to begin with.

(Universal) Rated PG-13. 118 mins. (C-)
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