Thursday, March 26, 2009

Duplicity: Untrustworthy

Duplicity (2009) • View trailer for Duplicity
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for profanity and mild sexuality
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.26.09
Buy DVD: Duplicity • Buy Blu-Ray: Duplicity [Blu-ray]

There's such a thing as being too clever.

Duplicity is a lot of fun to watch; it could hardly be otherwise, since Julia Roberts and Clive Owen illuminate the screen with enough spark and star wattage to power a good-sized city.
With his credibility on the line, Ray (Clive Owen, foreground left) tries to
persuade the rest of his corporate "dirty tricks" team that an accusation by
Claire (Julia Roberts) is without merit; his efforts are, shall we say, an
uphill struggle. But it's also one of dozens of moments when we've no way
of knowing who -- if anybody -- actually is telling the truth.

At the same time, the film also is quite annoying.

Writer/director Tony Gilroy certainly knows the spy genre, having scripted The Bourne Identity and its two sequels. One can imagine, given his total immersion with a character burdened by serious trust issues, that Gilroy saw the light comedy potential of a story that brought together two characters who  as a necessary part of their careers  deal with evasion and false identities ... but who nonetheless fell in love.

How can either one trust the other? Can any exchange of information, or confessions of devotion  no matter how seemingly heartfelt -— be taken at face value?

Therein lies the rub ... not only for the characters, but also for us viewers.

Because just as former MI6 agent Ray Koval (Owen) and former CIA agent Claire Stenwick (Roberts) all too quickly assume the worst of each other, we very quickly discover the same problem. Gilroy's narrative is so twisty  it positively wallows in double- and triple-crosses  that we're unable to believe anything we see or hear, and we therefore cease to care about any of the plot twists.

All we can do is assume that some subset of these characters will wind up gaming the rest of them, no doubt quite cunningly, and hope for a reasonable amount of sense (justice? payback?) as the final credits role.

Meanwhile, we can take pleasure from once again  after too many years  seeing Roberts in the sort of part that perfectly suits her: one that gives ample excuse for her radiant smile and sensuously naughty laugh. Owen, far from chopped liver, matches her beat for beat, his British charm and savoir faire also given considerable exercise.

We hit the ground running, with Ray and Claire somehow mixed up in a ruthless cold war between the CEOs of rival multinational corporations: industry titan Howard Tully (Tom Wilkinson) and brash upstart Dick Garsik (Paul Giamatti). Tully is the careful strategist and poker player; Garsik is the impatient and opportunistic wild card nipping at the older man's heels.

Both hate each other. With a vengeance.

Both regard industrial espionage  at its core, the bald theft of proprietary ideas and innovations  as a reasonable means to an end.

Ray is part of Garsik's "black ops squad," tasked with uncovering any weak links in Tully's legion of employees: anybody who could be exploited or (better yet) "turned" to advantage. Claire does the same as part of Tully's comparable dirty tricks team ... except that Claire's a double: She actually works for Garsik, and clandestinely routes information to him via her handler, who happens to be Ray.

Still with me?

Don't jump ship yet; it gets much more complicated.

The exact nature of Ray and Claire's professional and/or personal relationship is impossible to fathom at first. Questions only get answered via the film's multiple flashbacks, which begin with their first encounter in Dubai in 2003, at a time when both still are employed by their respective government spy agencies.

As the story progresses, the flashbacks move closer to the present time, and we eventually realize that much of Ray and Claire's "public" relationship is pure artifice, carefully contrived to help them find, cultivate and bring home a Big Score that'll allow them to live the rest of their lives in the opulent style to which they've unreasonably become accustomed.

They figure $40 million should be enough.

Having stumbled across the internecine warfare fomented by Tully and Garsik, Ray and Claire seize the moment after learning that the current corporate skirmish apparently centers around some not-quite-yet-developed wonder product awaiting refinement and patent. As for what the product is, who's developing it and where ... well, all that remains a secret even to our cheerfully larcenous protagonists.

Not that they aren't trying very hard to find out.

Wilkinson and Giamatti, to a degree present mostly for comic relief, are nonetheless remarkably credible as the rival CEOs: both of them the sort of powerful men we've recently been conditioned to hate even more than usual.

Wilkinson is cold, reptilian fury: generally checked but capable of occasional eruption, with such a response invariably accompanied by a wickedly sinister smile that could chill the blood at 50 paces.

Giamatti, in deliberate contrast, is the rabid, yappy dog always seeking an excuse to clamp his jaws onto the nearest exposed ankle: a little thug in an expensive business suit, whose crass behavior should in no way be taken to imply an absence of intelligence or low bestial cunning.

They're made for each other.

Ray and Claire also seem the perfect couple, albeit for different reasons. As professional prevaricators, they've learned not to trust anybody; the question is where one chronic liar can find happiness with another chronic liar.

"They're their own species," Gilroy suggests, in the film's press notes.

An intriguing notion, to be sure. The degree to which you'll play along with the maddeningly escalating schemes and evasions, however, depends entirely on your susceptibility to the stars' charms. Which, in fairness, are considerable.

On a different level, Gilroy's film is also fun to look at.

I recall, when the original version of The Thomas Crown Affair debuted in 1968  a clever con job with reasonable twists  that director Norman Jewison made brilliant, breathtaking use of split-screen storytelling. For the next few years, however, every hack director in Hollywood had to include a split-screen sequence in his movie, no matter how inappropriately or poorly conceived.

Thankfully, the trend passed; the use of split-screen has been sporadic ever since. Gilroy, cinematographer Robert Elswit and editor John Gilroy (Tony's younger brother) revive the gimmick here, and to marvelous effect. Each time the screen divides into quadrants, with one section receding or advancing closer to our field of vision, it signals the beginning or conclusion of another flashback; we get a sense that the present-day story is continuing elsewhere, just off-frame, while we "catch up" with a few pertinent details from the past.

As for whether we can believe each dose of fresh information, though ... well, that's another matter.

In a sense, Duplicity is a descendant of the 1940s screwball comedy: a genre that took pride in being silly and convoluted, and survived solely on the charisma and impeccable comic timing of stars such as Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn. Nobody cared whether Grant's zoologist got his dinosaur bone back in Bringing Up Baby; we just wanted Hepburn to fall into his arms before the curtain closed on the final act.

Similarly, the corporate skullduggery at the heart of Duplicity is little more than a Hitchcockian MacGuffin; we really only want the forever sparring Roberts and Owen to kiss and make up ... and mean it. That last bit might be one desire too many, though, with Gilroy going out of his way to keep pulling the rug out from beneath them.

From beneath us, as well. And that's the irritating part.

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