Duplicity (2009): Tony (Michael Clayton) Gilroy’s Screwball Comedy, Starring Julia Roberts and Clive Owen

At the top of their forms, charismatic stars Julia Roberts and Clive Owen may become the Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy (or Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant) of their generation after “Duplicity,” Tony Gilroy’s witty, elegant high-tech romantic thriller, which is designed to provoke and to entertain mature, intelligent viewers.

 

Many filmmakers have tried to duplicate the Hepburn and Tracy witty screwball comedies of the 1940s and 1950s (“Adam’s Rib,” “Pat and Mike”), usually written by Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin and directed by George Cukor.  In fact, Roberts herself has made several of them, none very successful, such as “I Love Trouble,” with Nick Nolte.

 

In his impressive sophomore effort, after the highly acclaimed Oscar nominated “Michael Clayton,” Gilroy doesn’t so much plow new turf as he updates and expands, quite successfully, the comedy of courtship and marriage (and remarriage), adding to it a more current text (about spies in multi-national corporations) and a more explicit political context, in which he places his globe-trotting adventure.

 

The subgenre goes back to the 1934 classic “The Thin Man,” which launched a whole cycle of films with Myrna Loy and Dick Powell.  More recently, we have seen efforts by the Coen brothers in the semi-effective divorce comedy “Intolerable Cruelty,” with George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones, and “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” a violent screwball starring Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie as married agents engaged in an all-out war to kill each other.  Of all of these samplers, “Duplicity” is by far the smartest, most enchanting, most captivating fare, one that works as a techno thriller and romance.  

 

Roberts plays CIA officer Claire Stenwick (paying tribute to Barbara Stanwick) and Clive Owen is MI6 agent Ray Koval, a romantic couple, who leave the world of government intelligence behind in order to pursue a seemingly lucrative scheme, which would benefit from the Cold War raging between two rival multinational corporations.  At first, their mission sounds simple.  “All” they have to do is to secure for themselves the formula to a product that will bring a fortune to the company that patents it first.  

 

To their respective employers, two industry titans, Howard Tully (Tom Wilkinson, who also appeared in Gilroy’s “Michael Clayton”) and buccaneer CEO Dick Garsik (Paul Gimatti, clad in expensive suits and ties for a change), nothing is out of bounds or out of limits—of any kind. 

 

Gilroy’s narrative benefits from its intricate, multi-layered structure.  We get to know Claire and Ray through a series of flashbacks that track their relationship, beginning with their first encounter in Dubai in 2003, and then taking us all the way through the plotting of their big heist in Manhattan of today.   At the first meeting, the then-MI6 operative Ray is simply a mark for CIA agent Claire.  She seduces him at a consulate party in Dubai, drugs him and then ransacks his room to steal Egyptian Air Defense codes. 

 

Utterly smitten with Claire, who disappears quite mysteriously, Ray, frustrated and infatuated, is determined to find her.  The story then jumps to Rome, where the couple meets again, have a lusty weekend, during which they decide to join forces and go private by leaving their respective jobs with the CIA and MI6.  But who would be the first to implement this fateful move

 

The stakes continue to rise with successive encounters, which take place in exotic locales all over the map.  A good deal of the fun and suspense derive from the fact that no one really knows who is playing whom—not for long.  Soon, it becomes evident that the toughest and trickiest part of their games and chases involves Claire and Ray themselves.  They constantly play each other, with each trying to stay one double-cross ahead.

 

Thematically, Gilroy works with another mismatched couple alongside Claire and Ray.  In the second half, he contrasts Howard Tully, the head of Burkett & Randle, and Dick Garsik, the head of Omnikrom, as two forces in the pharmaceutical world whose ambition and hatred for one another is matched only by their egos and greed.  In lieu of Cold War between two countries, Gilroy applies the still viable dramatic concept to two giant corporations whose headquarters are in Manhattan’s chic Park Avenue.

 

The narrative perceives both protags as spies-turned-corporate operatives in the midst of a clandestine love affair.  When they find themselves on either side of an all-out corporate war, they discover the hardest challenge of their job is to decide how much they can trust each other.  And how much to immerse themselves in their jobs without risking the momentum of their erotic liaison.  The only constants in their many ups and downs are passion and sex, and I wish Gilroy staged more explicitly erotic scenes between his incredibly photogenic and likable stars.

 

In the end, the two former career loners, who are used to spend a lot of time in posh hotels, by themselves or waiting for each other, are forced to realize what they have subconsciously know all along, that the only value that endangers their plan, and which they cannot cheat their way out or outmaneuver each other, is love itself. 


In most of his work as a writer Gilroy has shown fascination with the intricacies of industrial espionage, beginning with his work on the blockbuster “Matt Bourne” franchise, which so far consists of three chapters, helmed by Doug Liman and Paul Greengrass.  His new yarn is based on factual evidence that there isn’t a major corporation, which doesn’t have intelligence department—call it spy unit–with some form of either defensive or offensive intelligence gathering. 

 

However, Gilroy is smart enough to realize that the public already knows about the dirty tricks in the corporate world, so he focuses on the mind (and heart) games that the duo plays in a narrative full of twists and turns, while using as a backdrop the brutal race between rival companies driven by avarice.  Indeed, no matter what the specific turn of events is, or what the location is, the center of the story always lies in the emotional warfare between a pair of romantically challenged, strong-willed lovers, who just happen to be competitors and rivals.


It’s a pleasure to see Roberts dominating the screen in a lead, after playing several parts in ensemble-driven pictures, such as Mike Nichols’ “The Closer” and last year’s “Charlie Wilson’s War,” opposite Tom Hanks, not to mention the Soderbergh’s “Ocean” movies, in which she had a rather small role.

 

After a pallid turn in “The International,” which was not entirely his fault, Clive Owen is back on track, demonstrating that he’s a leading man of a special kind, one who can easily appropriate the smooth appeal of Cary Grant (in the same way that George Clooney has done), while maintaining a rougher, more macho exterior that’s more proper for contempo audiences.  Having appeared in just about every movie genre, including comedy, Owen seems blessed by an almost unlimited range.


As noted, the dialogue is witty and sophisticated, and the actors must have been instructed to deliver it in rapid-fire tempo, though not as fast as Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell do in Howard Hawks’ 1940 screwball comedy “His Girl Friday,” which still serves as a model for such pictures.


This is the second teaming of Roberts and Owen, after “The Closer,” Mike Nichols’ nasty, misanthropic dissection of marriage.  Endowing each star with a sharply written part of equal size and importance, results in our pleasure of observing the positive impact of on-screen rapport.

 

Cast

 

Claire Stenwick…Julia Roberts
Ray Koval…Clive Owen
Howard Tully…Tom Wilkinson
Richard Garsik…Paul Giamatti
Jeff Bauer…Tom McCarthy
Duke Monahan…Denis O’Hare
Pam Frales…Kathleen Chalfant
Ned Guston…Wayne Duvall
Barbara Bofferd…Carrie Preston
Boris Fetyov…Oleg Stefan
Dale Raimes…Rick Worthy
Dinesh Patel…Khan Baykal
Big Swiss Suit…Ulrich Thomsen
Ronny Partiz…Christopher Denham

Credits

A Universal release presented in association with Relativity Media.

Produced by Jennifer Fox, Kerry Orent, Laura Bickford.

Executive producer, Ryan Kavanaugh. Co-producers, Christopher Goode, John Gilroy.

Directed, written by Tony Gilroy.

Camera, Robert Elswit.

Editor, John Gilroy.
Music, James Newton Howard; music supervisor, Brian Ross.

Production designer, Kevin Thompson; art directors, Stephen Carter, Tamara Marini (Rome); set decorator, George DeTitta Jr.

Costume designer, Albert Wolsky.

Sound, Michael Brodsky; supervising sound editor, Warren Shaw; re-recording mixers, Michael Barry, Shaw.

Visual effects, Asylum, Hammerhead, Handmade Digital, Brainstorm Digital special effects coordinators, Jeff Brink, Eddie Droghan.

Stunt coordinator, Jery Hewit.

Casing, Ellen Chenoweth.

 

MPAA Rating: PG-13.
Running time: 124 Minutes.