Thursday, March 19, 2009

For spies, love is a tricky business

Too complex for its own good, "Duplicity" nonetheless gives us a chance to watch a well-matched Julia Roberts and Clive Owen navigate their way through a movie about characters who seldom seem in control of their fate. To say that "Duplicity" is contrived is to do it an injustice; it's composed of thousands of contrivances, as if the plot is unfolding as a series of high-speed tweets -- not all of them written by the same person.

Writer/director Tony Gilroy ("Michael Clayton") casts Roberts and Owens as former spies, savvy international types who ply their trade for a couple of business titans (Paul Giamatti and Tom Wilkinson). Both Owens' Ray and Roberts' Claire are artifacts of another time. Having honed their skills during, high-stakes missions, they're now working for businesses that have less interest in planetary survival than in being first to the marketplace with a new variety of frozen pizza.

Making good use of dozens of locations -- Rome, New York, Switzerland, the Bahamas and London among them -- Gilroy pushes his story around the world, drawing liberally on a variety of jet-lagged genres: romantic comedy, spy thrillers and caper movies. In that regard, "Duplicity" couldn't be more emblematic of Hollywood at the moment; it's a triumph of eclecticism complete with split screen gimmickry, a bouncy musical score and dialogue that goes heavy on clever bickering between Roberts and Owen.

Despite the movie's globe-hopping jitters, Roberts and Owens still get plenty of time to banter. The main issue between them is one of trust; i.e., there is none. As spies, they've been schooled in skepticism, which raises an interesting question: How do people whose survival depends on never suspending disbelief develop anything resembling a love-based relationship? The answer: warily. Both Claire and Ray are not only surveying each other for signs of possible betrayal, they're trying to discover what earth-shaking new product the vast Burkett & Randall Corp. is about to unveil. Giamatti's Richard Garsick, who heads the rival Omnikrom Corp., desperately wants to discover what that product might be -- and, of course, steal it.

Roberts and Owens worked together in 2004's "Closer," and have an obvious rapport, but "Duplicity" comes up short of perfection. Roberts is beginning to show signs of wear; this isn't her freshest or most buoyant work. Owens, on the other hand, seems to spring to life, perhaps because he's liberated from the brooding misery that weighed him down in movies such as "The International" and "Children of Men."

Given the paucity of quality competition, "Duplicity" may wind up winning stronger reviews than it deserves, but it does offer the pleasure of watching major stars in a movie that believes in poking fun at genre demands while at the same time attempting to satisfy them. Roberts and Owen hold the screen, carrying an elaborate plot to its slightly rueful finish line. But upon arrival, you may find yourself looking back and wondering whether it was really worth the trouble. "Duplicity" has its share of charm, but there's probably less to it than meets the eye.

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