For someone who made his name in Hollywood as a crackerjack screenwriter, Tony Gilroy seems, with Duplicity, far more adept with the camera than the written word. With his directorial follow-up to Michael Clayton, Gilroy returns to the world of corporate espionage, though this time he plays his spy-thriller material for fun, his characters' use of champagne corks to send secret signals proving apt for a film aimed at delivering fizzy thrills.
For all its intricate plot machinations, however, there's little here that hasn't been done before, and better, by the likes of David Mamet and even Steven Soderbergh, whose Ocean's Eleven capers are clearly an inspiration for Gilroy's jazzy-cool approach. Stylish to the hilt, it's a saga coated in sumptuously sleek hues that are in tune with the story's zippy verbal interplay. Yet for all its razzle-dazzle aesthetic flair, there's not much going on beneath the striking surface, as the writer/director's tale is an unnecessarily knotty one, masking its shallowness of theme and characterization with narrative loop-de-loops that, by the third act, are revealed to be insufficient window dressing for a rather pedestrian, hollow cat-and-mouse contest.
Duplicity deliberately posits MI6 agent Ray (Clive Owen) and CIA spook Claire (Julia Roberts) as featureless (aside from their deft ability to deceive), their habitual professional deceptions having left them incapable of understanding – or remembering – who they truly are. When we first meet the two, they're falling for each other in Dubai, with Claire screwing, and then screwing over, Ray. Five years later, they run into each other again in New York City, and Ray bitterly rips into Claire for her schemy behavior. All, however, is not what it seems, and as the story progresses, Gilroy intersperses his action with flashbacks that reveal the American and British spies' budding relationship and concurrent decision to plan a master-ruse that'll net them enough millions to permanently live high off the hog. Their devious initiative involves going private, infiltrating competing companies, and then manipulating events for their personal benefit, an idea realized thanks to two warring cosmetic firms whose titans of industry (Tom Wilkinson and Paul Giamatti) are introduced in an overly funny-ha-ha airport sequence in which they come to slow-motion blows on the tarmac.
Gilroy establishes his sexy-witty tone early, Ray and Claire relishing the opportunity to tightrope-walk their way through a corporate minefield where theft is the modus operandi and truth is an uneasily verified commodity. While Owen and Roberts, reunited after their acidic pairing in Closer, savor their rapid-fire banter (and, notably, the memorized back-and-forths that they repeatedly perform during their scheme), Duplicity's early bubbliness isn't sustained by Gilroy's script, which monotonously segues between time periods and time zones (from Dubai to London, New York and Rome) in an effort to create layered mystery. For all its heavy plotting, the film's central scheme, and its characters' trickery, aren't actually very complicated – Gilroy's apparent convolutions are just a pretense. The resultant action is a needlessly muddled sub-Trouble in Paradise parlor game, one that, through its failure to posit Ray and Claire's love for each other as one of the stakes in their dangerous con, squanders any potential for generating deep engagement. The only thing at risk is money, which, in terms of caring about these two ace swindlers, isn't enough.
Lurking within Duplicity is a better film about Ray and Claire's dual crises-of-faith, their vocational fraud eventually corrupting their identities and dashing their ability to trust, to be honest, and thus to love. Gilroy does address these notions, most bluntly in a teary third-act conversation, but his single-minded focus on fooling the audience turns his proceedings facile. Wilkinson and Giamatti have scant shots to chew scenery but don't squander what they're given, especially in the former's case, as the actor bites hard into a centerpiece speech about social and corporate evolution.
Still, so hard does the writer/director work at making his leads look dashing – a task at which he ably succeeds – that he never bothers to flesh them out, the two coming off as simply well-dressed, conversationally dexterous movie spies and, in the case of Roberts, a decidedly flat, bored movie spy at that. Primarily affecting no-nonsense chilliness that subdues her trademark effervescence, Roberts seems adrift, only coming alive during a meta-moment in which, upon having Owens tell her how to play her part, she exclaims "Are you directing me?", her smiling face beaming in such an infectiously amused, infinitely charming way that it throws into sharp relief the otherwise frustrating lethargy of these clock-and-dagger shenanigans.