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.