Tony Gilroy’s first film, Michael Clayton, was a brilliant and absorbing tale of the corporate underworld, a stunning achievement for the first-time director that netted him Oscar nominations for both writing and directing in 2008. It was one of my favorite movies not just of that year, but of the last ten, perhaps even twenty years. So my expectations for Duplicity, his second movie, were justifiably high – a sense of optimism which, unfortunately, only set me up for disappointment. Whereas Clayton was sharp, savvy, and even beautiful at moments, Duplicity is clumsy, uncomfortable, and so outlandish at times that I can’t help but wonder whether the entire film is just a botched attempt at self-parody.
Duplicity opens promisingly enough. Clive Owen and Julia Roberts are two spies who meet at a Fourth of July celebration in Dubai, spend the night together, and part on less than amicable terms. The next time we meet these characters, five years have passed. They’re now working for the CEO of a consumer product corporation (Tom Wilkinson) who’s out to destroy his rival (Paul Giamatti) once and for all. Or are they? The movie takes us back in time every few minutes to fill in the five-year gap and give us a clue (or two) as to what the two main characters are really up to. On paper it sounds like an interesting way to tell a story, and it is until about halfway through the film. That’s when the flashbacks start to get repetitive and, frankly, quite boring. In its second half, the main plot slows to a crawl as Duplicity lingers in the past for minute after tedious minute. One can only stand listening to Owen and Roberts wax poetic about their feelings and whether they can trust each other for so long before it gets hard to care if either one is ever telling the truth.
To step back for a moment, though, it’s worth noting that Gilroy’s first major misstep occurs before he even makes it back to the present for the first time. The film’s opening credit sequence, in which Wilkinson and Giamatti stand face-to-face and scream at each other in silent slow-motion, is almost embarrassing in its obviousness. It sets the stage thematically, I suppose, by setting up their rivalry before either one has even appeared in the story. But for a film that takes such pride in the complexity of its own narrative, this is a rather childish attempt at grabbing the viewer’s attention – not to mention that it makes the characters into one-dimensional caricatures from the onset. The scene grows nearly as tiresome as some of the later flashbacks after just a few seconds, and I’m still not sure whether the bewildered chuckles it drew from me were part of Gilroy’s intent or actually came at the director’s expense.
The movie falls flat stylistically as well. Gilroy’s shots are composed with immaculate symmetry – characters are rarely positioned outside the center of the frame, often in angular rooms with stark, blazing-white walls. The effect is certainly eye-catching, but more often than not it’s also mildly unsettling. Perhaps Gilroy was trying to be ironic by juxtaposing the story’s off-kilter characters with his perfectly balanced cinematography, but even if that’s the case, it just doesn’t work here. More than anything, looking at Duplicity for too long without blinking just made me feel like I was staring into a sanitarium.
In the end, neither the Owen/Roberts intrigue nor the Wilkinson/Giamatti subplot reach a particularly interesting resolution, and the flashbacks never amount to anything truly significant aside from a cheap twist in the film’s final moments. But it isn’t the plot that ultimately disappoints the most, even though it does command more than its fair share of logic-defying leaps of faith. Rather, Gilroy’s strange and unlikable characters are the film’s biggest letdown, especially after the finesse and nuance of Michael Clayton. Duplicity isn’t an outright “bad” film, per se, but in light of what it could have been given the capabilities of its cast and director, I can’t help but think the filmmakers just didn’t try that hard – and in an industry so hopelessly glutted with bland and intentionally brainless movies, such wastes of talent make for a particularly subversive brand of mediocrity.
Rating: ** (2 out of 4)