In the opening credit sequence, business executives played by Paul Giamatti and Tom Wilkinson gesticulate angrily and silently as they walk to their airplane. The argument soon turns into a full-blown sissy boy slap party with the two slightly frumpy men lunging at each other in extreme slow motion for several minutes. It's a witty and outright hilarious scene that also serves as a reminder of just how ridiculous the human body looks when you get a really good chance to watch it in motion. A flimsy palm smacks into a flabby cheek that ripples like Jell-o; an open-mouthed expression of anger only produces laughs when we see it unfold muscle by muscle.
It's an inspired moment that promises a visually audacious film from sophomore director Tony Gilroy who dazzled with his behind-the-camera debut in "Michael Clayton" (2007). Unfortunately, aside from some snazzy use of split-screen, it's just about the only stylistic flourish of note in the entire film. It sometimes feels like the entire film is shot in shallow focus medium close-ups, designed for the express purpose of providing the lead performers with as many glamour shots as possible. It's a real drag to look at which is a problem in a studio flick that strives for Hollywood slickness. The unvarying use of shot-reverse shot editing also contributes to the film's monotonous look and tempo, a fatal weakness that even a nifty script would be hard-pressed to overcome.
And the script certainly is nifty, though not necessarily in a good way. The film is a globetrotting industrial espionage caper built on a series of double, triple and quadruple crosses. Smooth operator Ray (Clive Owen) picks up the lovely Claire (Julia Roberts) at a soiree at the American Consulate in Dubai. But it turns out Claire is the real pick-up artists when she drugs Ray and absconds with some secret documents.
Years later they meet again by coincidence. Ray, still bitter from his bamboozling, confronts Claire who denies even recognizing him. Of course she's playing him again. And later we learn that they're both playing us. And their business partners who, in turn, are also playing them. And each other.
The Byzantine plot has enough twists and turns to keep audiences guessing, but also too many to maintain any interest in the actual people involved. The main intrigue revolves around the impending introduction of a secretive new product by a major corporation. A rival company hires Ray and Claire, among others, to steal said secret so they be first to market and make a killing. Meanwhile, Ray and Claire plan to steal everything for themselves, and possibly from each other.
Everyone is selling out everyone else including, possibly, Claire selling out Ray or vice versa. Or both. Who knows? And who cares? The "trust nobody" shtick wears old pretty quickly, though Gilroy tries to counter this by refocusing the action on the eccentric romance between the leads. Much like the couple involved, we're never quite sure whether they really love each other or not, and it seems that their goals and sentiments shift from scene to scene and from exotic locale to exotic locale. They'll always have Dubai, but they'll also have Italy and London and, yes, even Cleveland. But will they have each other?
Roberts is a natural charmer but, as with most of her recent roles, she's coasting on her own fame: "Hi, I'm Julia Roberts, and I'll be your Hollywood superstar for the evening." Those constant glamour shots turn her into more of an icon than an actual actress, and there's a nudge-nudge wink-wink factor to the performance that constantly reminds that we are the watching Julia rather than Claire.
Owen fares much better though he's also given a lot more material to work with. The film is mostly told from his perspective, limited as it might be, and he's not fetishized to the same degree as Roberts, whose cleavage is featured as prominently here as in any film in her post-"Brockovich" era. He's so slick and handsome it's easy to understand why he was once rumored to be the front-runner as the new James Bond. But he's no super spy here. In one of the script's wittiest touches, Ray, after years of scheming and hopping from country to country, finally comes up with a master plan to make Claire and him filthy rich: frozen pizza! Fortunately, Claire has a better idea.
I admit that I have limited patience for "twisty" movies, and I lose interest about the third or fourth time the rug gets pulled out from under me. If the film had been more compelling visually, I might have been more willing to lose myself in the story. Instead, I found myself constantly distracted by the relentless reliance on shallow depth of field. Wide-angle lenses aren't the enemy. The twists grow tiresome and then become downright exasperating, particularly in a big reveal at the end. It's all cleverly written, but as the great philosopher David St. Hubbins once said, "It's such a fine line between stupid and clever."
In a sense, "Duplicity" is a throwback to classic Hollywood with its two lead performers offered as the main attraction. You don't go to watch Ray and Claire; you go to watch Clive and Julia. And if that prospect interests you enough to follow them through an amiably goofy, overly complicated script, then you'll enjoy this film a lot more than I did.
A 5/10 on the DVDTown scale.