Saturday, September 05, 2009

Duplicity: Grade C

Duplicity (2009)
Clive Owen, Julia Roberts, Tom Wilkinson, Paul Giamatti; Writer-Director Tony Gilroy.

Just like Ocean’s Eleven, which it apes in style, this movie is coruscation without content. Owen and Roberts are easy on the eyes, no question about that, but two hours of them is more than an eyeful. They are ex-government spies now employed in corporate espionage. Wilkinson is head of a big consumer products company that has a new “game-changing” shampoo, all very hush-hush. Giamatti is his opposite number who must have the secret formula to the new product. I find it impossible to get past Giamatti, into the character. He is full of arbitrary mannerisms and manufactured intensity. His acting seems desperate, without direction, and not funny, a contrast to his performance in Shoot 'em Up. Anyway, both corporations have substantial security departments to protect their secrets. Owen works for Giamatti while Roberts works for Wilkinson. So far so good, other than the ho-hum McGuffin.

But actually, Roberts also works for Giamatti’s team. She is a mole on the other side, and Owen is her “handler.” In a series of time slices we learn that the two have a long history as competitors and lovers and each has a difficult time trusting the other. That interaction, repeated without mercy, is cute and funny the first few times. The dialog is all clever phrases and snappy comebacks, unrealistic but reminiscent of Nick and Nora Charles in The Thin Man. The happy talk and pretty faces glide us over the choppy story. There are plenty of unexpected twists, lies, bluffs, and ambiguous loyalties to consider but there is no real dramatic tension because the writing depends on withholding information from the audience so you can’t really tell what’s up. The story itself has no inherent suspense. And unforgivably, it doesn’t add up. The ending is just a twisty turn for its own sake that is inconsistent with what already happened, a crash landing for a story on autopilot.

Cinematography is strong, with sets in such sumptuous detail you can almost touch them. Orange and blue filters are overdone, but the lighting is generally thoughtful and mood-setting. The acting is nondescript because the characters are only cartoons. That style can work for a caper movie, like The Thomas Crowne Affair, but in this case the writing was not up to the challenge, so we are left with a two hour fluff that is not unpleasant.

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