Movie Review of 'Duplicity'

Julia Roberts and Clive Owen play corporate spies who get caught up in a clandestine affair. Video by Universal Pictures
By Dan Kois
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, March 20, 2009

Finally, someone's put the fun back in corporate irresponsibility! Consider "Duplicity," Tony Gilroy's romantic pharmaceutical-espionage caper, an antidote to news of bailouts, bankruptcies and bogus bonuses: The CEOs of "Duplicity" may be wasting millions of dollars, but at least they're doing it to put the screws to each other, not the taxpayers.

Starring Clive Owen and Julia Roberts as a pair of ex-spies (he, MI6; she, CIA) now knee-deep in the world of corporate intel and counterintel, "Duplicity" pits two pharmaceutical companies and their embittered chief executives against each other. Burkett & Randle, led by Howard Tully (Tom Wilkinson), has discovered a mysterious skin cream (or a lotion -- "There's a difference!") that will revolutionize the industry. Equikrom, led by Richard Garsik (Paul Giamatti), needs to steal the secret to that lotion (or cream -- "Get it right!" Garsik barks). Both men are driven by a personal grudge, as shown in the movie's opening credit sequence, in which the executives wrestle each other to the ground on a rainy tarmac.

That a comical fight between two paunchy CEOs is the only violent scene in "Duplicity" makes it a thoroughly enjoyable spy thriller for those of us who feel a little bone-crunched out by the Bourne series. Yes, "Duplicity" features more than its share of spy-movie tropes: There's plenty of gobbledygook about computer hacking, chemical formulas and bugged photocopiers. But, happily, no one in the film gets punched, shot, strangled or beaten to death with a book.

And there's romance, of sorts. Behind the scenes, Claire Stenwick (Roberts) and Ray Koval (Owen) work their nefarious magic, he ostensibly on Equikrom's side, she ostensibly on Burkett & Randle's. But are they both really working for each other? And can they really trust each other? And are they lying all the time, even lying in bed? Roberts and Owen have a certain crooked chemistry, but, as evident in 2004's "Closer," it works best when they're being mean to each other. So there are precious few moments of typical romance in "Duplicity." When Owen whispers, "Set it deep, take your time, have a way out before you get in," he's delivering a plan to double-cross both corporate clients -- not pillow talk.

If there's a complaint to offer about "Duplicity," it's that it never allows its leading lady much room to work her magic. That famous rip-snorting Roberts laugh is unleashed once, about 10 minutes in, and never heard again. (That single laugh must have been Gilroy's gift to his studio's publicity department, which has desperately been using it to promote the movie.) For the most part, Roberts matches Owen, intense stare for intense stare, stone face for stone face, as if the two were slugging it out in the finals of some kind of international Made You Blink competition.

Luckily, they both get to play off Giamatti, who lets his proverbial hair down and overacts gleefully, plotting his opponent's demise with zeal that comes just short of steepling his fingers, a la Mr. Burns of "The Simpsons." Wilkinson, as his rival, is comparatively sedate, preaching corporate survival of the fittest in a sleek, all-glass office adorned with a single bonsai tree.

And part of the fun of this kind of movie, of course, is watching veteran character actors steal every scene they're in. In "Duplicity," those thieves include Denis O'Hare, Rick Worthy and Kathleen Chalfant (on the Equikrom side) and Tom McCarthy and Wayne Duvall (on the Burkett & Randle side). Best of all is Carrie Preston, funny and sad as a lonely Burkett & Randle employee wined, dined and left behind by Owen, pretending to be a bespectacled Tennessee doctor. (His accent is atrocious, but his bedside manner is splendid.)

The insouciant, deadpan rhythms of the film betray Gilroy's artistic debt to Steven Soderbergh, who was the executive producer on "Michael Clayton," Gilroy's directing debut. Soderbergh can make this kind of movie in his sleep (and, with "Ocean's Thirteen," may have done just that). Even James Newton Howard's jazzy score swipes the bounce and swing of David Holmes's music for "Out of Sight," the gold standard of beautiful-people-double-crossing-each-other films. And if "Duplicity" isn't up to the level of that minor masterpiece, it's a pleasant big-studio diversion, a screwball romance with beautiful movie stars set in gorgeous hotel rooms, deluxe office space and corporate jets. It's smart, it's for grown-ups and it lets Roberts laugh, if just once. Short of a miracle cream -- or lotion! -- what else can you hope for from corporate America these days?

Duplicity (125 minutes at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for language, some sexuality and displays of obscene wealth.

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