‘Duplicity’ movie review: Julia Roberts, Clive Owen in Tony Gilroy corporate thriller

I have one problem with Tony Gilroy’s otherwise excellent Duplicity: the tone is all wrong, and it threatens to ruin the film. 

Here we have an intelligent David Mamet-like corporate espionage screenplay with rat-a-tat dialogue and delicious satire, and then it’s played out like one of Soderbergh’s Ocean’s films; two movie stars and a broad supporting cast and a knowing director, all winking at us in every other scene. 

They’re good at what they do, and I had a good time watching the film, but I kept pining throughout for the Gilroy who brought us Michael Clayton.

Clive Owen and Julia Roberts star as Ray Koval and Claire Stenwick, a pair of spies who first meet at a Dubai party; MI5 agent Ray gets Claire to go back to his hotel room, CIA agent Claire drugs Ray and makes off with some precious documents.

Years after the cold war, however, there’s not so much money in the CIA/MI5 business anymore; Ray and Claire both have new professions in the world of multinational corporations, working (coincidentally) for competing giants in the personal care industry. Or rather, for the same corporate giant. 

You see, Claire is a counter-espionage agent for Burkett & Randle, run by Howard Tully (Tom Wilkinson), but she’s really a spy for Equikrom, a rival company run by Richard Garsik (Paul Giamatti). When she starts to stray, however, Equikrom calls in Ray to reel her in, and the two are reunited.

This is the kind of film where you never trust anything that’s happening on the screen, but you enjoy watching it all unfold anyway. So when Tully announces a super secret new product that Burkett & Randle is developing, we immediately know something is up, and the film is smart enough that some of the characters should have known, too. 

Or maybe they do know, but you can’t trust them to show it. In any event, the spy game is set into place as Equikrom dives in head-first after this secret product.

After about 20 minutes, the picture twists on itself, and then it keeps on twisting for the duration. Flashbacks slowly reveal more and more about Claire and Ray – or do they? Are they playing the corporate giants or are they playing themselves? “Nobody trusts anybody,” Claire says, rationalizing their relationship. But these two have good reasons not to trust each other – they know themselves too well.

Gilroy’s script is flat-out excellent, the kind of Hitchcock throwback that many attempt but few deliver these days. Peppered with Mamet-like dialogue, full of flavor (love the frozen pizzas), topped with two good star turns by Owen and Roberts, the kind of performances that define a movie star in the classic Cary Grant, Barbara Stanwyck way. 

Things are rounded out by an excellent supporting cast, not just Giamatti and Wilkinson, who have some great moments, but also Tom McCarthy as Claire’s colleague, and Denis O’Hare as the head of Equikrom’s espionage team.

But the movie is just too damn goofy, and it feels all wrong. Especially in the current economic climate: here are two spies, about to destroy one giant corporation or the other, not sparing a thought for the employees or stockholders, and they’re doing it with a wink and a smile. We’re complicit in their scheme, you see. That final twist (and you know it’s coming, especially in this film) is good, but not enough. The director should know better.

Still, it’s a great ride. Fun, engaging, and intelligent, it’s only problem is that it gets you to think, and you end up thinking too much.


Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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