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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

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.

MPAA: rated PG-13 for language and some sexual content

viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine
  • Kevin

    Er, Tim Wilkinson? Who’s that?

  • Jan Willem

    I guess Tom looks like Tiny Tim next to Big Clive.

  • Katie Dvorak

    Seeing this on Saturday and really looking forward to it. :)

  • MaryAnn

    Er, Tim Wilkinson? Who’s that?

    Corrected. It was just a typo.

  • Andrew

    Can we talk about the ending? I thought it was completely tone-deaf, but I won’t get into specifics yet.

  • MaryAnn

    Let’s talk about the ending. In what way was it tone-deaf for you, Andrew?

  • Andrew

    SPOILERS [warning added by maj]

    Because the clever, charismatic spies lost and the smug corporate bastard won, how else?

    I mean, I can just see the scriptwriter sitting through Ocean’s Eleven and then thinking to himself as he leaves “you know, that was good, but it would have been even better if that SWAT team was for real, Ocean and the crew went to jail, and the casino got their money back. Now that woulda been a REAL crowd pleaser!”

    Duplicity’s story is basically that two smart and funny spies try to steal something and get rich… and then they don’t. Turns out the corporation was smarter than them! The end! I sat through the credits until they turned into scrolling text, waiting for one last twist, because I couldn’t believe that.

    Any other year, it would just be a bad ending. This year, “the corporations win! You are tiny and manipulated by them because they think it’s funny!” is incredibly tone-deaf. Unbelievable.

  • MaryAnn


    But the clever charismatic spies were thieves doing something illegal! You want a stamp of approval on that?

    I’m being sarcastic, of course. I don’t see the smug corporate bastard’s win as a nod of approval to what he did. And our spies don’t end up in jail… though they are forced, perhaps, to consider whether having each other is enough, and that final line implies that it might not be.

  • Andrew. MaryAnn. why no spoiler alerts?
    your comments have pretty much given away the entire twist of the plot.

  • MaryAnn

    You’re right, bronxbee, that spoiler warnings wouldn’t have hurt — and I’ve added them — but Andrew explicitly asked if we could talk about the ending. Anyone reading the comments would be able to conclude that if they didn’t want the ending spoiled for them, they should stop reading. No?

  • well, a lot of people skim through to find something to catch their attention in the comments, and might have found themselves reading before noticing the word “ending.” and while you did mention you were going to talk about the ending, it wasn’t in large bold letters — and i just seems that with a really twisty plot like this, a little extra caution on giving away the cool stuff would be nice. it didn’t give away anything to me, of course, because i’ve already seen it.

  • AlexJ

    Wow. Andrew, you do have a point, but maybe not for the reason you are giving.

    I saw Duplicity on the weekend based on MA’s review…
    and I wasn’t disappointed, per se. The film was thoroughly enjoyable, smart and funny and sexy etc…

    However, the ending left me…cold. At first I thought it was because, as Andrew says, it was ‘tone-deaf’. On reflection, however, I am more inclined to believe it is because the film is a little flawed.

    It commits the one no-no of a plot twisty film – it lies to the audience. It doesn’t trick them with what’s presented on the screen, it just lies (by omission in this case).

    There’s nothing inherently wrong with the couple being tested on their own relationship merits. It’s because there are NO hints, indications or suggestions of any kind whatsoever that they are being played by the corporations, except for Smug-CEO being so smug. The first moment I realised what was going on was when the Embicromb CEO walks onto the stage with the standing ovation, and you suddenly realise he’s going to get destroyed due to his prophetic words earler, which means Our Heroes are screwed.

    But there’s no hint or sign that the counter-intel team are all triple-agents throughout the 100+ mins of movie before that. They may as well all have turned out to be dead people. Which is an unfair crack, because the brilliance of 6th sense was that it was such a huge twist done by DECIEVING the audience but *never* lying. You had all the evidence you needed to work out the end, if you had been sharp enough. Duplicity has not even the slightest glimmer of a hint that anyone but Claire and Ray are playing it less than 100% straight. We don’t suspect the ending, not because it was clever, but because we had not the slightest reason to do so. It’s like the murder mystery where an irrelevant side character that has no information about given in the plot turns out to have done it.

    Duplicity was still well worth watching, but a little bit of a let-down.

  • Bill

    I shouldn’t have read the review or any of the comments before seeing the movie:) I did enjoy it from start to finish, but it would have been a bit more fun if I was on the hook for the twists and turns. But, of course, that’s my fault. How about that slow-mo scene with Paul Giamatti and Tom Wilkinson? I would buy the dvd just to be able to watch that thing whenever I wanted to. That was just fucking cool.

  • Mathias

    MaryAnn, there’s a fine fine line between letting audiences put 2 and 2 together and leaving them hanging with unexplained but important questions. I have two:

    1) Why did Claire rat out on Ray like that in front of everybody? What was she hoping to accomplish by betraying him?

    2) How did Ray get the formula out of Omnicrom HQ after being blown?

    Really liked the film and i kept up with it until that part. I also loved the ending, it was unexpected but throughly believable in the world the film set up.

  • MaryAnn


    We don’t suspect the ending, not because it was clever, but because we had not the slightest reason to do so.

    I’m not sure about that. The whole movie is about how duplicitious and sneaky these corps are in general, and we already have the idea of the double agent. I don’t see how discovering that other folks may be double agents should be an unfair surprise.

    Mathias: I’d have to see the film again to gather the specifics to respond to your questions (or to acknowledge that there don’t seem to be answers to them) — I don’t remember the details well enough. But I do remember that I wasn’t bothered by these things at all.

  • jwc

    hi, just saw this movie…

    i also had the same questions as mathias…
    1. why did clair rat out ray
    2. how did ray get the formula out w/o getting in trouble

    please answer, anyone!

  • anyone

    I just saw the movie today

    I might have the answers if jwc and Mathias still care.

    1. Clair rats out Ray and then storms off as part of their exit strategy. They need to be “fired” in a sense

    2. It’s not explained how Ray gets his cpoy, but its easy to assume that somehow with all his experience that and planning that he must have found some way to make a “third” copy.

  • troy

    Ok, what i don’t get about the ending is this:

    So the corporation never had a formula in the first place. Why did they put so much effort into tricking clive owen and julia roberts? At the end they were sitting drinking champagne talking about how “this has to go way back” like someone was getting them back from a long time ago. But what the hell were they talking about??

  • kkitao

    So the corporation never had a formula in the first place. Why did they put so much effort into tricking clive owen and julia roberts?

    The corporation put so much effort into tricking Ray and Claire because they were the conduit to Richard Garsik’s (the Paul Giamatti character’s) company. What mattered was tricking Garsik, embarassing him by having him announce this huge breakthrough that was never going to happen in the most public possible situation.

    To do that, they had to trick Ray and Claire, but that was never the main point of the sting.

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