The creeping ability of big corporations to maintain their own intelligence networks, a subject explored with finesse and a measure of seriousness in Tony Gilroy’s previous film, Michael Clayton, is mined for goofier use in Duplicity, a romance aiming at a tone of jazz-riff larkishness but somewhat undermined in that pursuit by the washboard-stiffness of its main characters, two private-sector spies tasked with coaxing a miracle cream out of one Big Pharma giant’s clutches and delivering it into another’s. Having perhaps absorbed some bad lessons from his Clayton producer Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s movies, Gilroy allows his actors to skate by with little more than passing-grade line readings and a detached swagger that no plot development could unsettle, leaving the audience to slog, unlubricated by sufficient character engagement, through the laborious twists of his ultimately routine, money-stakes-only espionage caper.
Claire Stenwick (Julia Roberts) and Ray Koval (Clive Owen) meet at Grand Central Station in an apparent case of mistaken identity (he’s sure they’ve met before, she’s drawing a blank), but this is revealed as a ruse for prying ears as we leap into a movie-length flashback thread that begins five years prior and proceeds forward in increments. It would be one thing if Gilroy were depending on this cumbersome device to tease out the full-spectrum relationship of his leads, thereby allowing the audience to make educated guesses as to who’s zoomin’ who, but he mostly eschews purposeful interludes in favor of needless elaborations on what’s easily stipulated—that they plan to snatch the miracle product for themselves, for example—as well as wheel-spinning pillow-talk episodes, the most eyebrow-raising of which sees Ray critiquing Claire’s reading during a bedroom rehearsal of their mistaken identity gag, prompting her to play the offended actress. “You’re directing me?” Julia twice guffaws, with eyes agleam and drawbridge-mouth open, setting her Claire-ness aside in all confidence that no mortal audience member will resist opting in to this Julia-being-Julia moment.
His easy enthrallment to diminished starpower and misguided belief in the unalloyed joy of solving timeline puzzles aside, Gilroy also proves here, as with Clayton, that he’s nothing if not an adept visualist. Scenes of basement-level intrigue, such as when sleeve-rolling upstart CEO Paul Giamatti visits his own counter-intel bunker to kick some ass, are bathed in soothing oceanic blues; from there, we move up the cold-color spectrum to heavy grays and royal whites that lend an air of sterility to the office tower of Giamatti’s corporate rival, fattened-alligator-in-a-suit Tom Wilkinson. Needless to say, Wilkinson masticates the hell out of his one meaty scene, a master of the universe musing about how corporate synergy is being aided by, among other things, global condom overuse. This amusing monologue is ostensibly directed at his seated hireling, Claire, but she remains so stone-quiet and glassy-eyed throughout that she’s hardly present, a fitting approximation of the zeal for craft Roberts demonstrates throughout the film.