The only thing you can trust about "Duplicity" is its title. Nothing else in this sleek, dizzying entertainment is even remotely what it seems to be. A throwback to the days of old-school caper movies like "To Catch a Thief," "Duplicity" is just the kind of sophisticated amusement you would expect from filmmaker Tony Gilroy.
The writer on all three "Bourne" films and the writer-director of "Michael Clayton," Gilroy has become a master of modernized tradition, displaying a gift for updating classic Hollywood forms with smart and sophisticated contemporary touches.
In "Duplicity" he's taken stars Julia Roberts and Clive Owen and put them into what is essentially "Michael Clayton Lite." Once again we are in the dog-eat-dog world of corporate malfeasance and industrial espionage, only this time it's played for laughs and romance. Sort of.
For if relationships are supposed to be based on honesty and trust, how do you deal with one grounded in dishonesty and mistrust? What happens when two masters of duplicity and guile, world class instinctive liars who could fool Old Scratch himself, think they may be falling in love. With each other.CIA officer Claire Stenwick (Roberts) and MI6 agent Ray Koval (Owen) have a professional tussle in Dubai in 2003 that leaves a lot of unfinished business behind. When they meet again years later, like recognizes like and they hatch a plan.
This devious pair exit government work and decide to run an elaborate scam that takes advantage of the periodic wars between rival corporations over a market-changing product, which they themselves plan to steal and sell to the highest bidder. The question is: Can they trust each other enough to allow that to happen?
The particular conflict that Stenwick (named, perhaps, to echo Barbara Stanwyck) and Koval insert themselves into is between two titans in the pharmaceutical world, Burkett & Randle and Omnikrom, companies whose bitter rivalry is as personal as it is professional.
The extent of that loathing is made clear in the marvelous sequence played under "Duplicity's" opening credits, a scene done without dialogue because, frankly, it's more fun that way. When B&R Chief Executive Howard Tully (Tom Wilkinson) and Omnikrom chief Dick Garsik (Paul Giamatti) accidentally meet at a private airport, they can't help but get physical, going at it fang and claw like power-suited sumo wrestlers. It's the perfect setup for what is to follow.
When "Duplicity's" plot kicks in, Stenwick is not only B&R's assistant director of counterintelligence, she is also a corporate mole secretly reporting to Omnikrom. And who is the Omnikrom contact, the agent who controls her? Yes, it's Ray Koval.
That basic set-up is all you need to know. Frankly, even if you wanted to know more, the nature of "Duplicity's" plotting is so dazzlingly complex, so full of turns inside of twists and twists inside of turns, it's difficult to fully convey. The film makes your head spin like an amusement park ride you can barely hang on to, something that needs to be experienced to be appreciated.
In addition to their obvious box office appeal, Roberts and Owen are just the right casting. Both Koval and Stenwick are self-absorbed, self-involved manipulators, a state of mind major movie-business players understand all too well. It's not too much to say that their professions have turned Koval and Stenwick into stars who are always on, always conscious of being watched, always playing everything they do for its effect on the audience, which, in this case, very much includes us.
As was the case with "Michael Clayton," "Duplicity" is beautifully shot by Robert Elswit, crisply edited by John Gilroy and splendidly cast from top to bottom (the veteran Ellen Chenoweth did the honors again). It's so well acted, you don't even miss Roberts and Owen when they are not on screen, which for a star vehicle is saying quite a lot.
Though it's almost a shame to single anyone out, special mention must be given to Carrie Preston as a travel agent who loses her way and Giamatti, who throws himself with palpable zest into the role of a tycoon who is so competitive he hates bowling because "a game with a limit on your score is a waste of time."
As that memorable character line attests, one of the real stars here is filmmaker Gilroy. He's written fine dialogue of all sorts, from repartee to romance to comedy and tension, and he's directed with the same snap, energy and playfulness he brought to the writing. Everything in "Duplicity" may be a scam, but Gilroy's talent is the real thing.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for language and some sexual content
Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes
Playing: In general release