"Duplicity," the new film from Tony Gilroy, director of 2007's amazing "Michael Clayton," is basically three movies stuck together, only one of which manages to work effectively.
First, you've got a spy thriller filled with double-crosses and characters who you can never really understand. Second, there's the exploration and ultimately the critique of corporate America. With the Cold War long over the ideal environment for spies and spooks is the corporate world in which two rival conglomerates are akin to what the United States and Soviet Union were 50 years ago. Third is a love story between two people who exist in and, unfortunately, have been shaped by the world of espionage.
Now which of those three movies sounds like it would be the most interesting? Answer that question and you'll know which part of the film succeeds while the others fall flat. Perhaps mentioning that the couple is played by Julia Roberts and Clive Owen will clarify.
Ray Koval (Owen) and Claire Stenwick (Roberts) are spies from opposite sides of the pond. Claire has had a distinguished career with the CIA and Ray is an MI6 agent. (Owen works for the same agency he should have been working for as James Bond, a role that any intelligent person should have given to him instead of Daniel Craig.)
Ray and Claire realize they could use their unique spy skills for far more profitable work than government service. They decide to go private, entering the world of corporate espionage. Their plan is to embed themselves within the spy divisions of two rival corporations and then use their positions to acquire information they could use to make about $40 million and live happily ever after together.
Their marks are Equikrom and Burkett & Randle, two billion-dollar corporations whose CEOs Howard Tully (Tom Wilkinson) and Dick Garsik (Paul Giamatti) loath one another. Claire is the "mole" within Burkett & Randle and Ray is a field agent for Equikrom's spy division. And together they're scrambling to figure out some hot new product that Burkett & Randle is developing.
Throughout the film you really have no idea what's going on as you're not sure who's playing who and if and when someone's going to double cross the other. All you know is that Ray and Claire seem to really like, maybe even love each other.
As a spy picture the film doesn't really succeed. It's a difficult line to walk between mystifying and confusing the audience and unfortunately Gilroy fails in this delicate balance. The film requires a great deal of concentration to try and figure out just what's happening. Frequently the narrative jumps backward in time. And we never really know if Ray and Claire are being genuine in what they say or are trying to deceive the other.
The critique of the ruthlessness of corporate culture is marginally interesting, though the CEOs are little more than caricatures of cutthroat capitalists, more focused on seeing others fail than themselves succeed. In a film so focused on complexity and ambiguity - great themes to explore - it seems almost out of place for its villains to be so one-dimensional. This world of corporate espionage certainly seems like it could produce a successful film, unfortunately "Duplicity" just isn't it.
Where the film does manage to save itself from failure is in its relationship subplot. Owen and Roberts are dynamite in their scenes together. It's a joy to see them joust with one another, as two spies used to relying only on themselves have to adapt to functioning as a couple. The film's relationship commentary is also relevant and useful: two people come together because they are able to understand one another. In one scene Claire reveals to Ray that no one else could ever understand the way her mind works - a life in espionage has shaped her in some altogether disturbing ways.
"Duplicity" isn't an outright failure for Gilroy. It was an ambitious experiment that didn't come together as effectively as his triumphant previous film. This is an entirely tolerable form of failure. "Duplicity" certainly isn't boring and it bears the signature of a talented filmmaker. It just doesn't come together with much success - a flaw I attribute principally to the fact that we can't get to know the characters that well since they're always deceiving one another and the audience. As long as he steers clear of the spy genre next time it's quite probable we can expect "Michael Clayton"-level work in the future.