Monday, March 23, 2009

"Duplicity"'s little secret: It's all about trust


directed and written by Tony Gilroy
starring Julia Roberts, Clive Owen, Tom Wilkinson, Paul Giamatti

Clive and Julia. Julia and Clive. They go together like wine and cheese, or martinis and olives—the perfect blend of astringency and richness, tart and smooth. I say this as an emphatic non-fan of Julia Roberts who only liked her in one movie previously; not coincidentally, it was “Closer,” the first in which she co-starred with Clive. While their chemistry in that exquisitely stylized downer was perhaps a tad too acidic for most palates, here, in the exquisitely stylized upper of “Duplicity,” it carries just enough zing to be a real crowd-pleaser.

Half heist film, half screwball comedy, “Duplicity” is all adult entertainment of the non-pornographic variety. Oh, there’s sex all right, and lots of it—but the vast majority of it either takes place offscreen or crackles in the air between its two protagonists. In that sense, it’s a throwback not to a particular era, but to several eras; in fact, the movie it may be most reminiscent of is the delightful 1999 remake of “The Thomas Crown Affair,” which had a similar layering of retro and contemporary sensibilities. Director Tony Gilroy, coming fresh off his multiple Oscar-nominated “Michael Clayton,” pulls a Steven Soderbergh in shifting nimbly from existential despair to existential hilarity: here, the deep-laid plans of corporate behemoths become the stuff of high-wire capers, with our two stars playing jetsetting spies for two rival Big Pharma companies locked in a market share death-match that we’re supposed to take about as seriously as the slo-mo fisticuffs that break out between their CEOs (well played by Tom Wilkinson and Paul Giamatti) in the film’s deliriously tongue-in-cheek opening sequence.

There’s less overt scratching and clawing between Claire (Roberts) and Ray (Owen), but over the course of the film they eye each other, if anything, even more warily than their respective employers. From the outset it’s clear that they may (or may not) be working together and that they have a history, albeit one that seems to be constantly shifting under the viewers’ feet. As with all movies in this genre, there are several twists before we discover who has the upper hand, and the final twist may not sit well with some viewers. But then, as with all movies in this genre, the plot isn’t really the point; it’s the style, rhythm, and vicarious enjoyment we get out of seeing all of its players in motion. On these terms, “Duplicity” is a success. At the same time, the slightly worn, but still potent, air of glamour that surrounds its two main players give it a fuller, mellower flavor than its broad outlines might suggest.

Indeed, for all its comedic trappings, the film seems to be aiming for a measure of emotional resonance in its focus on Ray and Claire. If sophistication, to a modernist sensibility, is the trick of hiding complex design behind an appearance of simplicity, then “Duplicity” is just the opposite: a movie that looks sophisticated but is fundamentally simple at its core. At its most basic level, it’s about trust in a relationship—in particular, the tension between, on the one hand, the need for trust and on the other, the addictive thrill of a good adversarial dynamic. One senses—nowhere more strongly than in the final scene—that complete trust between these two might have a deflationary or even, dare I say it, detumescent effect on their romance. This is an idea that Gilroy only plays with, probably because it doesn’t quite fit within the framework of the film. Still, it’s just enough to add a little weight to an otherwise prototypically airy exercise in old-school Hollywood escapism. And that alone is enough to make it stand out.


Note: My review of "The Class" is also FINALLY up.


Blogger Tonio Kruger said...

Hey, it's always better to take your time and get it right. (Says the guy who has yet write a review for over half the films he saw last year.);-)

2:11 AM  
Blogger lylee said...

Thanks for understanding. :-) The life of a lawyer is not, unfortunately, a life that lends itself to quiet, unhurried reflection.

3:39 AM  

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