So this is how everyone else felt watching Ocean’s 12 and 13*. I quite liked those movies, with their smug and disposable power-lunch charm. When you’ve got that collection of personality on display a bit of smugness is easy to swallow, or at least ignore. Duplicity, which follows screenwriter-turned hyphenate Tony Gilroy’s feature debut Michael Clayton, aspires to the same sort of kooky energy and smirking backstabbing.
By way of Mr. and Mrs. Smith (a movie like a fart: enjoyable in the moment, forgettable even before it’s done) he’s made his own heist movie, complete with double-back heist movie construction, jaunty music and the hope that his shenanigans are buoyed by high-wattage star power. But Gilroy never matches the film’s pace to the pulse of the story, and misjudges the raw appeal of Julia Roberts and Clive Owen.
The stars, as a pair of government spies trying to make big money in the world of corporate intrigue, are meant to smolder and flare. All they really manage is to dully glare, like a couple of people who know they should want each other fiercely, but are really just waiting for someone they really dig to come around.
Owen, an ex-MI6 operative, takes a job with Equikrom, a consumer products company engaged in a fierce rivalry with competitor Burkett-Randle. He’s meant to run a corporate spy: the ex-CIA Julia Roberts. She’s a double agent installed in Burket-Randle’s own intelligence division. Their goal: dig up something to put Equikrom on top. When the chance comes they set in motion a complex plot to lay hands on precious corporate secrets.
The couple has a past. Back in their government days, Roberts seduced Owen and stole secrets from his hotel room, leaving him zonked out like a sleepy gimp. The guy took that personally and spent years fuming about his comeback. Through an extended and increasingly lifeless series of flashbacks, we learn about their reunion, further flirtation, and how Equikrom and Burkett-Randle play into a classic ‘get rich, if not quick then relatively fast’ scheme.
There’s a lot to mine from the relationship as heist. Owen and Roberts want to trust each other, never quite believe that they can, and that uncertainty undermines everything they do, to the point where you start to suspect their scheme has no potential to work. Under layers of suspicion and subterfuge Duplicity has a romantic heart, but peeling away everything that shrouds it can be difficult and never appears to be worth the effort.
And do you want to? As with the Oceans movies, the appeal here lies in deceit, in seeing people put one over on each other. I’m far less interested in seeing this couple get together than I am in watching them try to out-do one another and screw the other over.
Maybe it’s just Julia Roberts. She’s hardly the femme fatale. Casting her is a tragic misstep; she doesn’t ignite fires with a glance, and we’re meant to believe that Owen simply can’t wait to see her again? It’s easier to believe he’s been nailing a succession of secretaries on the side. We also don’t get to see enough og her being particularly smart or cunning. More often we hear about it, or see the aftereffects. Owen tries to turn on his own charm, but, as in The International, he’s mostly harried and determined, not particularly sexy.
Fortunately, there are Paul Giamatti and Tom Wilkinson, as the rival CEOs whose ambitions drive the machinations of a horde of underlings. Giamatti chews through scenery like a bag of Cheetos, snarling and clenching his way through every scene. Wilkinson is more collected and centered, and it doesn’t take much to understand that he might be the only guy in the movie with actual power.
Maybe Duplicity could have found it’s feet if it was just a straight caper picture, or if it had more appropriate star power to deploy. Meanwhile, Gilroy is still fascinated with the corporate world, but he never makes it as interesting as in the best parts of Michael Clayton. Once again, there’s a lot in the mix: heist, corporate satire, romance. It’s too much, which somehow translates into feeling like not enough.
* Which contains a joking nod to the director, as a pheromone used by Matt Damon’s character to seduce Ellen Barkin is called ‘the Gilroy’.