Tony Gilroy's sophomore effort Duplicity (2009) is that fizziest of genres, the romantic spy thriller--basically about a CIA officer named Claire (Julia Roberts) and an MI6 operative named Ray (Clive Owen) who conspire to steal a supersecret formula from under the watchful eye of Burkett & Randle's Chief Executive Officer Howard Tully (Tom Wilkinson). Plots and counterplots ensue; bedroom couplings, secret meetings, surveillance operations, and so on; twists within twists within twists within. There's story enough for half a dozen less generous thrillers, and sufficient chemistry between the two stars to keep us listening to their fairly witty repartee.
One does not suspect this of Gilroy--he had previously been known as the scriptwriter of the supergrim Bourne movies, Robert Ludlum's humorless attempts to supplant Ian Fleming's James Bond novels (to be fair, Fleming's books are every bit as unfunny as Ludlum's; the sly humor came from the movie adaptations, especially those starring Sean Connery); he later debuted as a writer-director with Michael Clayton, a dramatic thriller. The introduction of comedy has greased the gears spinning in Gilroy's mind--this time the plot is improbably intricate, the improbability matched by the cast and movie's sleekly stylized glamour. This isn't real life, Gilroy seems to be saying, and thank God for small blessings.
In one sense Gilroy does retain a distinctive feature from his previous feature effort, the fractured time scheme. Duplicity starts in the tense present, with Burkett & Randle CEO Tully facing off against Equikrom CEO Richard Garsil (Paul Giamatti) in front of their respective corporate jets, under the pouring rain. The story veers off into the past, and we learn that Claire and Ray have met before, have in fact scammed each other before, alternately taking off with the prize while leaving the other holding the proverbial bag.
The movie proceeds on two levels--well, maybe three. There's Burkett & Randle constantly trying to get the better of Equikrom and vice versa; there's CIA trained Claire trying to get the better of MI6 operative Ray and vice versa; and then there's poor Claire trying to ascertain whether or not Ray is worth trusting, perhaps even loving (and vice versa).
Gilroy keeps it all moving along at the required brisk pace; he also manages the more difficult challenge of keeping the complex plot coherent (more or less--it lacks the one indispensable quality of the very best complex plots: it doesn't all boil down to one elegantly simple structure); and finally he manages the most difficult of challenges, to keep all this consistently interesting, if not amusing.
He enlists a fine cast of characters to his cause: Owen, who after a series of somber roles in heavy drama films reveals himself here to be a fine comic actor; Giamatti and Wilkinson, who play to the hilt the pair of business rivals literally at each others' throats.
Roberts, the heavyweight Hollywood star who balances out the movie's outsized share of testosterone, is an oddly unexciting choice for me. One really wants Claire to be smart, funny, sexy--Owen's match in every respect only wearing garters, if possible. Roberts is smart and funny (she's improved immeasurably since her days as America's sweetheart), but the word 'sexy' doesn't readily come to mind. She's played wholesome roles for far too long (remember her Wonderful World of Disney interpretation of a prostitute in Pretty Woman (1990)?), the same time her physical resemblance to her less famous brother is far too strong. Most viewers today may have forgotten Eric Roberts; I remember his various turns as the sweetly goofy Paulie in Pope of Greenwich Village (1984), his hapless corporate executive distracted by the lovely Greta Scacchi in The Coca-Cola Kid (1985), his punk sidekick trailing behind Jon Voight's outsized convict in Runaway Train (same year). Most memorably, there's Eric's ferocious performance as the unlikeable, near-unwatchable Paul Snider in Bob Fosse's Star 80 (1983). Every time I look at Julia, in effect, I keep seeing murderer-rapist Snider in a fright wig.
That aside (couldn't they get, oh, say, Mira Sorvino?) it's a good if not great confection.
A great confection--isn't that a contradiction in terms? Not really; if anything, great confections are far more difficult and demanding to create than great dramas. You needn't hold back when doing great drama; anything and everything is open to you, from the very heights to the very depths of the human heart. With a great confection, however, you need to meet all those requirements plus you need to make it all seem effortless, lighter than air (a confection is not a confection when it drops on your lap like a load of Wagnerian concrete).
Take the films of Alfred Hitchcock. Many of his early British pictures are prime confections, arguably the best of which (my favorite, anyway) is The 39 Steps (1935). Talk about deadly conspiracies and hairbreadth escapes and sexual chemistry--Robert Donat with Madeleine Carroll had plenty of the last, but better than chemistry is Hitchcock's prankish, malevolent mind. He conjured up a love interest for the hero (the John Buchan novel had none), has them dislike each other intensely at first, then hits upon the device of handcuffing them together--an idea so effective, so brilliantly simple, any number of thrillers and action flicks have been cuffing people (odd couples, mixed racial pairs, comedy duos, what-have-you) to each other for decades afterwards.
Hitchcock, of course, helped matters along--story goes that when Donat and Carroll first met they rehearsed a scene cuffed together, after which Hitchcock confessed to having lost the key. Donat and Carroll were forced to wait while everyone searched; they eventually found themselves talking to each other about friends, films, experiences. Whereupon Hitchcock declared: "Now that you two know each other we can go ahead," and produced the key from a waistcoat pocket. The 39 Steps is arguably an early high water mark in the genre of romantic spy thrillers, or espionage/suspense films with a strong romantic element (another would be Hitchcock's North by Northwest, made twenty-four years later--but that's material enough for another article). I wouldn't say Duplicity comes anywhere near Hitchcock's level, but it does lunge at that general direction--that's the highest praise I can give the picture.
First published in Businessworld, 5.22.09