Movie Reviews - 2009 postsMonday March 30, 2009
Review: “Duplicity” (2009)
Please accept the usual SPOILERS alert
“Duplicity” is a film with two gorgeous stars (Clive Owen, Julia Roberts) who have great chemistry. Their dialogue is smart, the film itself is sexy and lighthearted, and there’s a slow-mo scene between two feuding CEOs (Paul Giamatti, Tom Wilkinson) that’s among the funnier things I’ve seen on a movie screen in a while. Critics like the film (66 percent on Rotten Tomatoes), A.O. Scott loved it (here), as did Patricia when we saw it Friday evening. So what the hell’s my problem?
Is it the name? The theme? The fact that the world’s a wreck now thanks to the duplicitous dealings of people like Bernard Madoff, and so distributing a sexy, light-hearted thriller using such people as heroes seems, at best, inopportune, and, at worst, a con game within a con game?
The writer/director is Tony Gilroy, the man who wrote the “Bourne” movies and wrote/directed “Michael Clayton,” which is also about people gaming each other, but which feels consequential. It seems like it matters. This doesn’t.
There’s a good article on Gilroy in the March 16th issue of The New Yorker, by D.T. Max, which references a conversation that Gilroy’s characters, Ray and Claire (Clive and Julia), have at a Lord & Taylor in midtown Manhattan. Five years earlier, when Ray was with MI-6 and Claire was with the C.I.A., she seduced him, drugged him and stole from him, and so when they meet at Lord & Taylor, both of them now in private industry, she the mole for one company whose contact in the other company is him, he’s got some shit to get off his chest. Moreso when she says she doesn’t know who he is. “I’m not great on names,” he tells her. “Where I’m solid? People I’ve slept with. That’s been a traditional area of strength for me.” It’s a great conversation and a great scene.
Then we hear it again, two years earlier in Rome, and again, and again. “The success of ‘Duplicity’ hinges,” Max writes, “on whether the audience will experience this sensation as pleasurable. Gilroy told me that he knew of no other movie where the same dialogue gets used five times for five reversals.”
Maybe that’s my problem. I enjoyed the dialogue so much the first time, it was a downer to hear it again this way. I felt cheated.
Also, let’s face it, once we hear it a second time, we know: 1) the Lord & Taylor scene is bogus, which means 2) the two are play-acting for someone, which means 3) they’re probably being bugged and are aware they’re being bugged. Thus the next time we hear the dialogue (played on a mini tape-recorder by Ray’s compatriots), it’s hardly a reversal. We already know the conversation was taped. The final time we hear it, as Ray and Claire practice the dialogue in her apartment before the first Lord & Taylor meeting — sounding less like secret agents than writers and directors arguing over word choices and line readings — yes, it’s another reversal, the biggest reversal of all. Because we discover, even if they don’t, that her place is bugged by Howard Tully (Wilkinson). Their scheme is really his scheme. Or, rather, his scheme trumps theirs.
Problem? Her apartment’s bugged? Kind of pedestrian, isn’t it? Isn’t she too smart, or tech-savvy, or paranoid for that?
You could argue that that’s the point. She thinks she’s too smart for that. He thinks he’s too smart for that. Thus their comeuppance. The New Yorker article makes it apparent that Gilroy believes in comeuppance. He thought he let Jason Bourne off too easily in the first film (he’s a professional assassin, after all) and so in the second film he’s forced to meet a girl he orphaned and deal. Same here. And that final scene, a slow pullback while they deal, is quite good.
Problem? You have four main players: Claire, Ray, Tully, and Richard Garsik (Giamatti). All are duplicitous. All deserve comeuppance. Yet Tully wins. Where’s his comeuppance?
You could extrapolate beyond the ending. You could argue that once Garsik is forced out as CEO for announcing a miracle product that doesn’t exist, he could, with nothing to lose, tell the truth. Say the whole thing was Tully’s scheme. Say Tully spent millions of his company’s money, and who knows how many man-hours, on a personal vendetta. Not to gain market advantage but out of petty revenge. And thus Tully could be forced out as well. Then nobody wins. You could extrapolate that. Maybe it’ll even be in the DVD extras. But it’s not here.
Besides, the main problem the film tries to resolve is whether Ray and Claire, two people who have made careers out of duplicity, can learn to trust one another enough to love one another. And despite the characters being well-written and well-acted within this framework... I guess I didn’t care. Maybe because I knew that even with non-agents, even with folks living the day to day, the answer to that problem is more fraught with reversals than anything Tony Gilroy could possibly imagine.
It’s almost unfilmable. If you stay true to Alan Moore’s original graphic novel, as director Zack Snyder did here, it’s almost unfilmable.
“Watchman,” the graphic novel, was created during the 1980s, when Europeans in particular were paranoid that between Reagan and Russia (which is where they were, literally), the world would end. Given human nature, and given the destructive power of these two countries, human beings were doomed. How to prevent it? Moore’s solution was to blow up New York, blame a third party (aliens in the graphic novel, Dr. Manhattan in the movie), and thus unite humanity against this third party. Sacrifice millions to save billions. Create an illusion of an Other to save ourselves from ourselves.
There’s logic in this. The problem? It’s 2009. No matter how nihilistic you may be, the doomsday scenario Moore and others feared didn’t happen. Which means sacrificing millions isn’t necessary.
At least in our universe. Fans will argue — have argued — that the “Watchmen” universe is not our universe. Their America “wins” Vietnam. Nixon gets elected to a third, fourth, fifth term. So maybe in that universe, it’s argued, the sacrifice is still necessary.
Doesn’t matter. We’re stuck in this universe. And for moviegoers stuck in this universe, particularly those who have never read the graphic novel (which is most moviegoers), watching the machinations in “Watchmen” is like watching a contemporary action flick set in 1999 in which the hero —Will Smith, say — sacrifices the world financial order to save us all from Y2K. Audience reaction will generally be: “What the hell...?”
Fans, those pesky SOBs, will argue that the Watchmen are not Will Smith — that the whole point of the Watchmen is that they’re not Will Smith. They’re complex, full of faults. Night Owl II is weak and ineffectual. Rorschach is like a short, masked Dirty Harry. Ozymandias is amoral, Dr. Manhattan disconnected. The Comedian is a murdering, raping fascist. “Complex.”
Yeah. For me, the lack of anyone between Rorschach’s paranoid activity and Night Owl’s shrugging passivity (or, in sexual terms, between the assaults of the Comedian and the impotence of Night Owl) means we’re in an adolescent realm where extremes rule and an unrelenting darkness is often confused with complexity. “It’s all a joke,” the Comedian says. It may well be, but he’s not in on it.
Why “The Comedian” anyway? That’s an odd name for a superhero who isn’t funny. Why “Ozymandias”? Why would the smartest man in the world, a powerful and pompous man, choose for his superhero name a figure representing the ultimate lesson in power and pomposity? To remind himself not to be pompous? Or maybe in this universe, Percy Shelley never wrote “Ozymandias,” and so its lessons were never imparted to the smartest man in the world, who took the name just because. This “other universe” thing is always a helluva argument.
OK, here’s why they chose those names. They didn’t. Alan Moore did. They come to represent those names (ironically), but there’s little in their characters that would make them choose them themselves. Well, maybe The Comedian; he’s got a sick sense of humor. But Ozymandias? That’s the author imposing his heavy (and symbolic) hand on the character. And Alan Moore’s got one heavy and symbolic hand.
Questions linger. Why does Dr. Manhattan fight in Vietnam? Can’t he see where this will lead? And if, 14 years later, Manhattan is so disconnected from humanity he’s choosing non-life over life, wouldn’t he, by 1971, at least have divested himself of nationalism?
I like the rise of the costumed superheroes in the late ‘30s — which is when they first appeared for us in comic magazines. I like their ascendance during World War II, and how they began to get knocked off after the war — which is when superhero comics began to be replaced by westerns and romance and horror. The graphic novel, more than the movie, gives us a sense of both the Golden Age (Minutemen/Watchmen) and the Silver Age (Watchmen II) of comic books, while the movie fudges the Silver Age. We really only get the second generation (Silk Spectre II, Night Owl II, Rorschach) in their dotage. By the way: Can anyone imagine a less likely duo than Night Owl II and Rorschach?
Ultimately the biggest problem with the movie (and maybe the graphic novel) is this: After the opening scene, we are left with five superheroes: Dr. Manhattan, Silk Spectre II, Night Owl II, Rorschach and Ozymandias. What is the storyline for each? What is each of them seeking?
Manhattan is increasingly disengaged and building things we don’t understand. Ozymandias is a non-entity until his machinations are revealed; then he seems insane. Night Owl is a schlub. Silk Spectre wants, like Daisy Mae, a man. Only Rorschach is really after anything and it turns out he’s wrong.
This is why I never really got into this story. I need characters interested (in something) in order to find them interesting.
Two-Minute Review: The International (2009)
When I first saw a trailer for “The International” it seemed like a thriller for our time: corruption at a bank, money being lost, people getting screwed. Turns out it's a thriller for the exact opposite of our time. It's about an Interpol agent trying to bring down an all-powerful bank at all costs, while in the real world we're busy trying to prop up our weak and hemorrhaging banks. Yes, at all costs.
The movie has some nice moments. We get to travel the world: Berlin, Lyon, Istanbul, Milan. Director Tom Tykwer shoots agent Louis Salinger (Clive Owen) entering, and dwarfed by, these gigantic financial institutions — the way Raoul Walsh filmed Joel McRae against a western backdrop in “Colorado Territory.” The great set-piece is a shoot-‘em-up down the circular floors of the Guggenheim in New York. Armin Mueller-Stahl, playing the inside man with a conscience, gives us his usual solid performance and delivers the film’s best line: “This is the difference between truth and fiction; fiction has to make sense.”
Unfortunately this fiction makes little sense — reflecting its difficult birth and German/Hollywood parentage. It’s too slow to be an action thriller and not cerebral enough to be an intellectual thriller. As implied, its villain (an international bank) is, in our world, on life-support, so as Salinger relentlessly pursues the executives of this bank around the globe, you almost want to reach out a hand and stop him. “Everyone is involved,” Mueller-Stahl warns Owen about the bank. Well, now anyway.