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Duplicity Doubles Star Power but Sparks Don't Ignite

  • Christian Hamaker Contributing Writer
  • Updated Aug 28, 2009
<i>Duplicity</i> Doubles Star Power but Sparks Don't Ignite

DVD Release Date:  August 25, 2009
Theatrical Release Date:  March 20, 2009
Rating:  PG-13 (for language and some sexual content)
Genre:  Romance
Run Time:  125 min.
Director:  Tony Gilroy
Actors:  Julia Roberts, Clive Owen, Paul Giamatti, Tom Wilkinson, Dan Daily, Oleg Shtefanko, Carrie Preston, Denis O'Hare

Tony Gilroy is on a hot streak. The screenwriter for the Bourne trilogy of films, Gilroy added to his repertoire by getting behind the camera for 2007's Michael Clayton. That film, which unfolded its narrative by fracturing the timeline and telling its story in a nonlinear fashion, earned him Oscar nominations for his screenplay as well as his direction. Tilda Swinton also won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance.

Gilroy's new film, Duplicity, which he wrote and directed, shares his previous film's sharp visuals but falters in the story department, overusing the time-fracturing narrative device that worked so well in Michael Clayton. The device hinders Duplicity's central romance between Ray Koval (Clive Owen) and Claire Stenwick (Julia Roberts), former government spies who now work for corporations but dream of a big score that might allow them to start their own private firm.

The couple has a history, going back to a night they spent together years earlier in Dubai. That tryst ended with Claire absconding with critical information from Ray, but their relationship was far from over.

After the initial introduction of the characters, the story jumps ahead five years. Later, a title card tells us that the story has shifted to two years earlier, in Rome, then to London 18 months ago, then Cleveland three months ago, etc. Ray is working for business bigwig Richard Garsik (Paul Giamatti), who wants a heads-up on a rival company's big product unveiling. To get the details, Ray will have to work with Claire, who's found a way inside of the rival company and has the ear of its CEO (Tom Wilkinson).

Rather than drawing viewers into the story as Michael Clayton did, the time hopping gives Duplicity a herky-jerky quality that challenges viewers to fill in the gaps. Ray and Claire bicker, cavort and travel the globe, but the romance, which gets by easily on Roberts' and Owen's movie-star magnetism in the early going, gets lost in the script's too cute narrative fracturing. That gambit might work were the plot equal to the star power, as the storyline of Michael Clayton was to the performances of George Clooney, Swinton and Wilkinson. But the tone of Duplicity is much breezier, beginning with an over-the-top CEO showdown and continuing with flirtatious banter between the two leads.

That banter is too sporadic, held back by the film's stop-and-start quality, which hinders the emotional bond that might have formed between the audience and the stars. By the time Ray and Claire address the question of their future together, the declarations feel unearned.

Giamatti's CEO is a foul-tempered loudmouth and Wilkinson a chilly corporate rival, but these one-dimensional performances work to the film's benefit. An early confrontation between the two men, with its slow motion, escalating violence, is more memorable than any of the scenes between Roberts and Owen. It's also prescient, as it becomes apparent that the film's best elements—cinematography, music, editing—are nonverbal. How disappointing that a romantic comedy falls short with its dialogue, which is merely passable but rarely sparks.

The film's visual energy is thanks in large part to the cinematography of Robert Elswit, who brilliantly filmed two 2007 releases:  Michael Clayton and There Will Be Blood. Gilroy jazzes up the story with split-screen imagery, which, along with James Newton Howard's score, give the film a cool, retro edge that's reminiscent of Steven Soderbergh's Ocean's Eleven.

Morally, the film's central relationship shows some growth, beginning with a one-night stand built around professional one-upmanship but building toward the possibility of long-term commitment. Unfortunately, greed, not love, is a primary motivator in the equation, as the couple aims for a very comfortable nest egg from which to build their business and life together.

The current anti-corporate climate might make it easier for some to overlook the film's less laudable elements, but the multiple plot machinations pile up so high that it's difficult to keep up, or to care. The film's ending is less a surprise than a relief, a stopping point more than a resolution.

Duplicity is a cinematic lark, and not one of the more memorable ones. But even larks have moral lessons. If it's godliness you seek, you won't find much of it on display in Duplicity. However, the film is not without biblical application. In this case, Proverbs provides guidance: "Trust in your money and down you go!" (Proverbs 11:28)

Readers are advised to save their money on this film, or, if they feel compelled, to limit their outlay to matinee prices.

Questions? Concerns? Contact the writer at


  • Drugs/Alcohol:  Discussion of being drunk; a woman pours champagne down a sink.
  • Language/Profanity:  Lord's name taken in vain; lots of sexual banter; anatomical references; some foul language.
  • Sex/Nudity:  Cleavage; a man sleeps in bed as a woman gets dressed; discussion of memories of sleeping together; images of a couple kissing and caressing in bed; a woman jumps out of bed and dresses, but the nudity is fleeting; a man is wrapped in a towel; photos of a man engaged in sex with a woman.
  • Violence:  Two corporate leaders come to blows.