Few things get me more excited than the prospect of an intelligent comedy. Director and screenwriter Tony Gilroy, who made Michael Clayton, the best film of 2007 tries his hand at this long lost genre with Duplicity. I’ve been seeing previews for it for a few months now and I have been anticipating it with great pleasure. It doesn’t quite deliver on the promise that comes with it’s talented cast and crew, but if this is Tony Gilroy’s sophomore slump, we’re in for some great movies ahead.

I can’t tell you much about the plot without giving away too much. It’s one of those ornate constructions that challenges you to follow closely and stay engaged. Julia Roberts plays Claire Stenwick an ex-CIA agent now working in the world of corporate espionage. Clive Owen plays Ray Koval, formerly of MI6, also now working in the business world. Both have a taste for fancy hotel rooms, so they decide to team up and steal an industrial secret so they can have that lifestyle together for the rest of their lives. You can pretty much gather that from the trailers and I really can’t say any more.

The two leads are fantastic. Clive Owen oozes coolness, but can also play a man being pushed out of his comfort zone. Ray is trained to hide his thoughts and yet Owen like any good actor shows you know what his character is thinking. That is probably not as easy as he makes it seem. The same goes for Julia Roberts. Claire is enigmatic; Ray doesn’t quite trust and neither do we. And yet we can see her trying to cut through the layers of lies she’s woven around herself over the years and get to that one sincere moment, hoping he’ll believe her. If the film had nothing else going for it, these two performances would have been enough.

Fortunately, Owen and Roberts have a terrific script with sharp dialog and inventive situations to work with. Using flashbacks it flips back and forth through time to give us the backstory in a painless and even compelling fashion. Gilroy emphasizes the theme of duality. The double lives of the two main characters, the two feuding companies, even the two worlds of corporate and international espionage reinforce this theme . He seems to be saying that when faced with these conflicts it is very hard to know what’s happening because you never know  which world someone’s motivation is coming from.

The supporting cast is good too. Tom Wilkinson and Paul Giamatti turn in their usual flawless performances as the two heads of the companies.

The only problem with Duplicity is it’s lack of ambition. With Michael Clayton, Gilroy was stretching the medium and his abilities. Here he’s playing well within his abilities. And it may even be a smart move to sort of regroup after the challenge and triumph of Michael Clayton, to sort of get his feet back under him before moving on.

So long as the next one reaches for the stars.


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