Duplicity is one of those slick, glossy romantic thrillers that tells essentially a very simple story in a very complicated way, replete with flashbacks, twists and turns, red herrings and whoppers. Oh, and duplicity, by the stinking rotten barrowful. Its core plot concerns industrial espionage, and its key question it poses is this one (as featured on the movie poster):
“Who’s running who?”
The answer may or may not be as obvious as appearances suggest, and unless you spot the big twist early on the guessing game will keep you occupied throughout this movie.
The chess players in this game of bluff and double bluff are CEOs of two fictional pharmco giants, Equikrom and Burkett & Randle, Howard Tully and Dick Garsik, played respectively by the excellent Tom Wilkinson and Paul Giametti. Still seems odd that British actors play Americans, but if you look at Wilkinson and, say, Hugh Laurie in House, you can see that in general our classically trained actors do it rather better than method school Americans playing Brits (think Renée Zellweger playing Bridget Jones and you get my drift.)
But if Tully and Garsik are the players pulling the strings, the runners are Clive Owen and Julia Roberts as Ray Coval and Claire Stenwick, respectively ex-MI6 and CIA and each believing themselves more than a match for the other. Coval and Stenwick have personal and professional history, which in the intelligence community is not a happy mix and certainly leads to the eye being taken off the ball. They sure look like they’re in it for themselves but they’re not alone.
Sure, intelligence is the sort of trade where sleeping with the enemy is merely a tool of the trade, but this is an edgy relationship with feelings attached. They are working together for themselves as well as spying on behalf of Equikrom, but the trust is less than skin deep; both are wary of the stiletto slipping neatly between the shoulder blades, for they regularly shaft each other metaphorically as well as physically.
We learn their back story through a series of flashbacks, demonstrating that they are not only actors acting their parts, but that the characters are also acting the part. Whether you can care about people who are duplicitous by nature and bearing I’ll leave for you to decide, but suffice it to say they are more anti-heroes than heroes, however much Gilroy would like us to have sympathy for Coval and Stenwick.
Anyway, after the first flashback (Dubai 2003) the movie opens with Tully and Garsik engaged in an ugly and unseemly brawl on the runway, beside their respective executive jets. This sets the tone, whereby each will do anything to get one over on the other, and that means the tricks will be low down and dirty. We’re talking serious games played by the biggest of the big swinging dicks (male or female) for the highest of stakes.
The ruse is simple: Tully claims his company, Burkett & Randle, have a new product to launch that will blow the personal products market sky high. Stenwick is under cover in a senior role at B&R, slipping key documents back to Equikrom, whose intelligence team uses an array of techniques to track down the people responsible for the new product and to identify what it is. If they can steal a march by stealing the formula, you can bet your bottom dollar they would launch it themselves. But what is it?
So far so good, but I’m not going to spoil your fun with any major revelations about what happens next. Instead, it would be fair to say that Tony Gilroy‘s story is written with some flair, and with the help of some wonderful locations and skilful direction, is a pretty good example of its genre, so long as you don’t take it too seriously. It looks and sounds good too, courtesy of fine cinematography and acoustic guitar music (plus that closing titles song by Bittersweet!) However, the critics were a touch sniffy. Courtesy of Wikipedia:
The film received mixed to positive reviews from film critics. Based on 166 reviews, it garnered a 65% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Film critic Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and wrote, “Duplicity is entertaining, but the complexities of its plot keep it from being really involving: When nothing is as it seems, why care?”, but admitted that “the fun is in watching Roberts and Owen fencing with dialogue, keeping straight faces, trying to read each other’s minds”.
In his review for The New York Observer, Andrew Sarris wrote, “So what has gone wrong with Duplicity? I can only go with my gut feeling: that Mr. Gilroy has outsmarted himself by pulling too many switches in his narrative. He then fails to recover by coming up with a smash ending that pulls all the scattered pieces together”. Scott Foundas, in his review for the Village Voice, wrote, “Comedy seems to have liberated Gilroy, who directs Duplicity with the high gloss and fleet-footed hustle of a golden-age Hollywood craftsman. There’s nary a dull stretch in its two-hour breadth”.
Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “B” rating and Lisa Schwarzbaum wrote, “Gilroy counts on a Thin Man-style undercurrent of sexual sparring to sustain our interest in two scheming corporate operatives despite the fact that nothing much else is going on”.
In his review for The New York Times, A. O. Scott praised Julia Roberts’ performance: “Ms. Roberts has almost entirely left behind the coltish, America’s-sweetheart mannerisms, except when she uses them strategically, to disarm or confuse. Curvier than she used to be and with a touch of weariness around her eyes and impatience in her voice, she is, at 41, unmistakably in her prime”.
Sukhdev Sandhu, in his review for The Daily Telegraph, wrote, “Duplicity is really all about Roberts and Owen. They’re con artists, but they don’t fool us. Their pairing here feels duplicitous. Gilroy, it seems, is better at thrilling audiences than he is at seducing them”. However, not all reviews were positive; Peter Travers of Rolling Stone gave the film two and a half stars out of four and said “Gilroy and his stars make it elegant fun to be fooled, but they sure as hell make you work for it.”
I’d agree with Ebert that watching the cogs whirring in the heads of Roberts and Owen is what keeps us watching the movie, since for the most part their presumptions about what is really going on are no better than ours. Both actors do their jobs with panache, and their on-screen chemistry is undeniable. They are us, trying to decipher the messages and put themselves, individually and collectively, in line for a major payout, and in so doing they are thoroughly convincing, as you would expect of competent actors. The plot tricks played on the audience are played equally on Coval and Stenwick.
If I’m jealous of anyone, it’s Mr Owen and his beautiful hand-made suits, which are way too good for a common or garden field operative, as indeed is the suite in a 5-star hotel. I won’t dare to ask what Ms Roberts’s wardrobe cost.
But in the final analysis, you realise that this is a frothy confection with little by way of substance, much like candy floss, even if it does hint strongly at dark and nasty goings on in real life corporates. Would it be surprising if real life conglomerates had intelligence teams whose role in life was to spy on the competition using any means to hand? Not in the slightest!