Duplicity is supposedly a film about multinational corporate espionage but it is really another take on the con-artist film, which was perfected and never since bettered by George Roy Hill’s 1973 classic The Sting. The ‘con-artists’ in Duplicity are ex-CIA officer Claire Stenwick (Julia Roberts) and ex-MI6 agent Ray Koval (Clive Owen). When corporate titan Howard Tully (Tom Wilkinson) announces the upcoming launch of a new, mysterious super product, his rival Dick Garsik (Paul Giamatti) becomes determined to get to the product first. Enter Claire and Ray – they already have a rocky romantic and professional history and are now rival business spies. Or are they? Are they in fact both on the same side? Are they in fact now lovers trying to rip off both companies? Can writer/director Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton) sustain the audiences’ interest in the series of light-hearted double-crossings and concealed motives that comprise most of Duplicity‘s running time?
Initially Duplicity does project the old school charm of a classical Hollywood screwball comedy with an old-fashioned international spy flavour. The busy cinematography, upbeat music and quirky shrinking-screen-shot edits are some of the stylistic flourishes that indicate the breezy tone of the film. The on-screen verbal sparring and off-screen bedroom antics between Claire and Ray also evoke the sexually charged dynamics of many of Joel and Ethan Coen’s films (in particular Intolerable Cruelty) and many of Steven Soderbergh’s films (in particular, Out of Sight). Unfortunately Duplicity does not sustain the level of sexiness, stylishness and cleverness that it would like to and its intrigue wears off too early. It also suffers from the same problem that many con-artist films suffer from and that is to conceal too much information from the audience. Revelations about the true nature of the deceit in con-artist films often comes close to the horrible “it was all just a dream” resolution.
While there is initially a lot of fun to be had in the banter between Roberts and Owen, they just don’t succeed in sustaining the necessary romantic chemistry and sexual tension. Despite the frequent close-ups on her cleavage, Roberts cannot shake her pure screen persona. This persona was the key to making the regressive fairytale Pretty Woman palatable to so many audiences, but it doesn’t work when we are expected to actually consider her as a sexual character. Owen’s problem is the opposite as after so many recent roles playing bitter, cynical and slightly sleazy men, it is slightly odd to see him clean-shaven and playing the romantic lead (albeit a slightly bitter, cynical and sleazy romantic lead). Interestingly the pair worked brilliantly together in the confronting Closer, suggesting that stronger writing and direction are all that they need. Duplicity is mostly fun and unchallenging entertainment but ultimately a bit of a disappointment.