Reel Society

Reviews for the latest movies in theaters and on DVD.



By Patrick Hodges

I like movies with complex plots.  Not only does it require you to actually use your brain (something that’s not required for roughly ¾ of films that come out), but I admire any director who doesn’t feel compelled to underestimate his audience’s intellect OR feel the need to spoon-feed us clues that end up telegraphing a vacuous and predictable ending well in advance.  I really respect that.

However, it is possible to take that characteristic TOO far.  There is a very fine line between complex and convoluted, and Duplicity, I’m sorry to say, steps about five yards over that line.  In 2006, director Tony Gilroy gave us Michael Clayton, a taut legal drama that featured some stellar acting (two Oscar nominations and one win for Tilda Swinton) and a starring performance from George Clooney that was about as far from his Bruce Wayne/Danny Ocean cool suaveness as you could get. 

Duplicity features two very recognizable names as its leads:  Clive Owen and Julia Roberts.  It was, frankly, good to see Owen in a role where he gets to express more than one emotion over the course of a film (not to mention the fact that he didn’t touch a firearm for the movie’s entire length), and I haven’t seen Roberts in a starring role since her Oscar turn in Erin Brockovitch.  I expected the two to have some chemistry, and in that respect, I was slightly disappointed.

We meet MI6 agent Ray Koval (Owen) and CIA agent Claire Stenwick (Roberts) at the beginning of the film, five years in the past, at a cocktail party in Dubai.  After a romantic encounter, Claire drugs Ray and makes off with some information that they had obtained.  Fast-forward to the present, where both of them have apparently left their government jobs and taken positions as private-sector intelligence operatives working for rival pharmaceutical companies.  After hooking up again, it would appear (with a capital "A") that there's still some bad blood between them.  But nothing in this film is as it seems.  

I’ll simplify this as much as I can:  the CEO of one company (a terrific and underused Tom Wilkinson, who stole the show in Michael Clayton) announces that he will be unveiling a revolutionary new product that will effectively put his rival company (whose CEO is played by Paul Giamatti) out of business.  Naturally, they both use their intelligence operatives to figure out what it is and what the other one is doing at all times.  What they don’t know is, their trusted agents (Ray and Claire) are actually in cahoots, and are orchestrating a way to turn the enterprise into a huge payout for themselves.

The acting is good, but not equal to that of Clayton.  Owen and Roberts clearly have feelings for each other, but it’s tough to buy that two people who clearly don’t trust each other an inch (the norm, I suppose, for people in their line of work) could love each other as much as they profess.  Wilkinson is great in the few scenes he’s in, and Paul Giamatti is his usual terrific self, if a trifle over-the-top at times.

As I said, there is a fine line between complex and convoluted, and this plot, which features numerous examples of treachery and double-dealing, was very hard to follow (and the equally numerous flashbacks didn’t help either).  You can tell that the story, on the backs of its two charismatic lead actors, tried to be clever, but it all got lost in the labyrinth of Gilroy’s hubris.  The ending (which I’ll admit I didn’t see coming, so kudos for that) does explain everything, but I didn’t leave the theater with the sense of fulfillment that I was expecting.

3 ½ / 5 stars

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