DUPLICITY is a smartly crafted, expertly acted, exquisitely directed exercise in smoke, mirrors, and greed. Written and directed by Tony Gilroy, whose MICHAEL CLAYTON was a tale of corporate expediency and redemption, his new film returns to the world of corporate skullduggery with the same sharp character studies, the same resignation about people sinking to their lowest levels, but this time out he infuses the story with a sense of black comedy that heightens the absurdity of overweaning greed. Take the scene played out under the opening credits, in which, to the strains of soothing music, the heads of the two corporations that will figure in the story go at each other with their fists with all the abandon and passion of eight-year-olds on the playground. Which is not to say that DUPLICITY is any less sharp, on the contrary, it demands an astuteness in its audience that is richly rewarded. Gilroy is not just commenting here on corporate corruption so ingrained that it has become standard operating procedure, he is craftily using that as a metaphor for the state of modern relationships in general, and the one between Claire (Julia Roberts) and Ray (Clive Owen) in particular.
They are ex-government spies, she CIA, he MI6, who have moved into the private sector as corporate counterintelligence operators. They also have a history stemming from a sultry 4th of July party at the American consulate in Dubai, where Ray brought his charm, Claire brought her cleavage, and a certain amount of asset sharing ensued resulting in, among other things, the pilfering of classified material of a non-carnal nature.
Five years later, they find themselves working for the same corporation in New York, he covert, she undercover at the competition, and both chafing at the situation. Instead of launch codes, the secrets at hand have to do with cosmetics, and there is something so right in having hope-in-a-jar as the McGuffin in a film that moves things along with deft sleight-of-hand and carefully couched promises designed to ensure plausible deniability. As the caper progresses in the present, Claire and Rays back story unfolds, shading their current story in puckish, playful ways that toy with the audience and leave it begging for more. The question at the heart of the action, thats heart in many senses, is whether or not two smart, attractive people who want to believe in love and in each other can ever truly trust one another in the fracas and chaos that is modern life and their chosen careers paths, careers that they are, alas, all too good at. The sad refrain throughout is Claire voicing her not entirely unfounded paranoia and Ray opining that shes sick to think that way, but then acknowledging its why she is so good at what she does. And so is he, for thinking along the same lines.
Also good are Roberts and Owens. She hard-boiled, hard-edged, and flashing that million-dollar smile with a cynical calculation that is breathtaking. He equally tough, equally suave, but with a tiny part of himself that is still capable of being gobsmacked. Or is he? The biggest delight here is the way these two say what they know their prey, each other, and the audience, all want to hear, and then leave them happy to have gotten bamboozled (or were they?) by this crackling dialogue that is a wonder of clever misdirection. Supporting them in sublime fashion are Tom Wilkinson and Paul Giamatti as the corporate masters, the former smooth, the latter not so much, but both effortlessly ruthless.
DUPLICITY revolves around trust, lust, and double-crust pizzas. Gilroy is mourning here the loss of innovation and smarts as the driving force of Americas business acumen, replaced with the drive to not just be the best, but of also to get the best of the competitor. It is that tinge of pathos that underscores the romance of the piece, making the idea of honesty in a love match the most dangerous gambit of all.