It doesn't take much to make the life of a spy look great. The travel, expense account, sense of danger, all that role-playing -- it's catnip for most people, whose greatest investment in daily skullduggery tends to be making their boss believe they're actually working. In Duplicity, however, writer/director Tony Gilroy ups the ante by reveling in all of the above while throwing in a keen sense of fun and maybe even a dash of honest-to-god romance. It's a dashing and bright entertainment that aims to please without scraping the floor for your approval. In other words, about as different a world from Gilroy's Michael Clayton as could be imagined.
The film starts with a quick meet-cute at an American consulate 4th of July barbecue in Dubai, where MI-6 agent Ray Koval (Clive Owen) is flirting with Claire Stenwick (Julia Roberts). He doesn't figure out that she's a CIA agent until much later, long after she absconded from his room with a parcel of secret documents and he has woken up from the drugs she knocked him out with. Years later, the two are thrown together again when Koval takes a private security job with Equikrom -- a Unilver-like corporate giant that produces everything from shampoo to diapers -- only to find Stenwick already in place as a deep-undercover operative working for rival firm Burkett & Randle, which is on the brink of a delivering a paradigm-busting new product that Equikrom wants badly. Article continues below
Koval and Stenwick have choice words for each other in a bracingly quick-witted and funny barroom-set exchange that only begins to hint at the layers of deception later to be unveiled. Allegiances and possession of the upper hand start to flip from one moment to the next, as Gilroy parcels out details about the true extent of Koval and Stenwick's past (a long tease, marinated in their opposites-attract heat), and makes excuses to send the two on excursions to Rome, London, and Zurich.
Marrying the spy game fun of his antic-filled story with a strong measure of bona fide romance is not something that one would have expected the creator of Michael Clayton and The Bourne Ultimatum to pull off. There's little of the former's portentousness or the latter's adrenalin overkill to be seen here; the stars here are more likely to spend their time lolling about in hotel beds and verbally skirmishing. Most of the film is a smoothly-delivered joy, buffered by the presence of a stalwart contingent of character actors, ranging from the always-weasely Thomas McCarthy (The Wire) to stage greats Denis O'Hare and Kathleen Chalfant, who do gripping work as a couple of Equikrom's other operatives.
Gilroy shows that he has the right tone firmly in mind from the start, with a slapstick credits sequence showing the two firms' executives -- Howard Tully (Tom Wilkinson) and Richard Garsik (Paul Giamatti) -- socking each other in slow-motion in front of their subordinates. The two are in a death match, but it's a laughable one. This is not to say that Duplicity is all froth and champagne (though there is plenty of the latter). Gilroy is playing in the same cutthroat midtown Manhattan landscape as Michael Clayton, with high-tech espionage tactics that seem drawn more from the real world than that of James Bond. The difference is this time there's a jazzily percolating '60s-style score behind the drumbeat of action, and the stars seem frequently more interested in bagging each other than the target.
Roberts and Owen are a studio executive's dream high-wattage star pairing, but they don't entirely work here -- though that's actually a good part of what makes Duplicity work. Roberts works a cooler and harder vein that she normally does, only breaking out the famous smile a handful of times, while Owen is on safer ground, playing with that sense of aloof and somewhat shambling arrogance that has served him so well in the past. They're a pair of jagged ends trying to fit, their foreplay-driven badinage feeling more like the exasperation of actual heated romance than the exhausted efforts of another modern director just trying to resurrect the ghost of screwball comedy.