Duplicity (review)

Good Clean Fluff

People complain that I think too much about movies. I don’t know how not to. “Why can’t you just shut your brain down for a while?” they ask me, exasperated. Heh. If there’s a special trick to that, I’ve never learned it.
It’s not that I don’t like fluff: it’s that I don’t like dumb fluff. And yet clever fluff is so very rare. So of course I cheer a hearty “Hoorah!” for Duplicity. It’s not deep: it’s a wispy-light meringue of a romantic spy-versus-spy comedy. But it is smart. It expects that you’re keeping up with the tricks it’s trying to pull on you. (If you don’t want to keep up with tricks, then this probably isn’t the wispy-light not-deep-but-smart seriously silly movie for you.) In fact, it knows how smart its ideal viewer is, and it loves you for it, but it’s gonna use your smarts and your many expectations of what it’s trying to pull to play you just the same.

I love that. I love that Duplicity was able to amuse me by hoaxing me so thoroughly. I wish more movies could do that.

I love that Duplicity sits somewhere at the intersection of Burn After Reading and Michael Clayton, as if in fact writer-director Tony Gilroy realized how solemn his Clayton was and wanted to lighten it up without trashing all the holy-god-can-you-believe-how-obscene-big-corporations-can-be stuff. So here we have a satire on corporate espionage that is so sharp, you could cut diamonds with it, and so dry, it’s… well, get the big soda at the concession stand. Clive Owen’s (The International, Elizabeth: The Golden Age) Ray Koval and Julia Roberts’s (Charlie Wilson’s War, Charlotte’s Web) Claire Stenwick work “counterintel” — the companies actually call it that — at rival beauty-product manufacturers. “These people take soap and shaving cream very seriously,” Ray is told on one of his first days on the job with the kind of smooth spoofing that understands that you’re in on the joke, that the joke is that it’s not really a joke, that it really might take former MI-6 and CIA operatives like Ray and Claire to steal secret formulas and protect new-product launches.

It’s insane, and it’s hilarious, not in a laugh-out-loud way but in a way that makes your toes curl in delight, it’s so clever. It doesn’t hurt, either, that Ray and Claire aren’t really so much rivals themselves as coconspirators in a plot to play both their employers: for what, we’re not really sure at first, but the plan is that it’ll end with them really, really rich. Or maybe they’re playing each other? We don’t know who to trust, and they don’t know who to trust, and that layers in more toe-curling intrigue to their romance — oh, yeah, didn’t I mention: if they’re playing each other, they’re having a lot of fun while they’re doing it. It’s like a James Bond movie in which no one gets killed (in fact, for anyone who’s been wanting to see the luscious Owen as Bond, this may be the closest we’ll ever get to it).

Goodness, there’s suspense: there’s a bit with a xerox machine near the end of the film that I couldn’t believe Gilroy could mine for such tension (while also being dry-as-the-Sahara funny about it, too). Gilroy jumps us around in time so often — and sometimes shows us things that, hey, wait a minute, haven’t we already seen that? — that we’re constantly having to rethink everything that’s come before, constantly having to reshuffle our understanding of what we suspect is happening. (If you don’t want to have to think about a movie, even a fluffy one, well, I don’t understand you.) And there’s endless amusement to be had from Paul Giamatti (Fred Claus, Shoot ’Em Up) and Tom Wilkinson (Valkyrie, RocknRolla) as the semi-crazy CEOs of the soap-and-shaving-cream companies — their prickly, snidely clever performances are two complementary hoots.

But — corporate espionage aside — there’s much pleasure to be had out of Duplicity out of quandaries such as these: Is Clive Owen more gorgeous in a sharp, slender suit, or in jeans and a crisp white shirt? Would 55 minutes in a dingy apartment in Cleveland with Clive Owen really be much worse than three days in a five-star hotel in Rome? Honestly, those are no-brainers (all choices are correct), but I like thinking about them anyway.

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