Saturday, March 28, 2009

Duplicity: Spy Versus Spy Romance Delivers The Goods

The period between the December/January's "serious" movies and the start of the May blockbuster season is usually the most cinematically dead. February, March, and April are typically filled with studio flops being dumped, formulaic thrillers, and second-tier comedy yuk fests, with maybe an odd Watchmen or two.

Which is why finding a well done, entertaining spy dramedy like Duplicity is so nice. With Julia Roberts as Ms. Spy plying her trade against Clive Owen's Mr Spy, Tony Gilroy's Duplicity delivers a nice, entertaining thriller of corporate espionage, head games, and heist romance that sends us to delicious locations (like Rome, Miami, and Cleveland) and delivers both the witty banter and well-designed ending that the best counter-intelligence plots achieve. You might call this film "Ocean's Two," and reducing the complicated motives and plots to just two characters tightens the story and heightens the drama.

What gets us off on just the right footing is that when Roberts's Clair meets Owens' Ray, they are both government spies employed by competing governments, and she's in the middle of taking him for a ride in order to steal the secret papers he's carrying with him. That initial moment of distrust becomes both a romantic barrier and a personal code for them throughout the rest of the story. The next time we see the two encounter each other, its five years later - and it turns out they are both working for the same company. Or are they? As flashbacks fill in what we've missed, we learn that the two may or may not have fallen in love, and may or may not have hatched a plot to take advantage of the corporate rivalry between two macho capitalist barons of fiercely competing consumer personal care product companies: Tom Wilkinson's Howard Tully and Paul Giamatti's Richard Garsik.

The fact that we don't quite know whether the two are gaming each other as well as their bosses keeps us on our toes while we try to unravel the plot that they might have hatched. On top of that, both Wilkinson and Giamatti deliver delicious over-the-top performances that let us begin to understand that Claire and Ray aren't the only ones playing deceptive, hard-ball shenanigans. What we come to understand: Garsik is ambitious, vain, and vainglorious. Tully is egomaniacle, paranoid, and vengeful. And both men are hyper competitive animals. Naturally, these failings let them fall right into the trap - set for them by Claire and Ray? or by someone else? - as the plot beings to thicken.

I also think that both Roberts and Owens give better performances than we've seen from either in quite a while. Roberts has one fantastically funny scene where she's sent to interrogate the office worker that Owens has just seduced, and plays the undercover schtick with hilarious aloofness. Meanwhile, Owens actually seems charming as he delivers pick-up banter that turns out to not only be well rehearsed, but carefully plotted as well.

That's why the duplicity here has the delicious complication of a movie like Mamet's The Game, but goes beyond Mamet's film to add an important sense of passion. There's a nice chemistry between Roberts and Owens that makes us believe that these two could be both fascinated and potentially burned by each other. Like their corporate counterparts, the two are driven by one overriding basic motivation: Greed.This is the Greed of being an American, the kind who wants that one big payday so we can retire to 500-thread count sheets in Rome. So we all understand each other. But these characters are destined to find something more valuable than their payday, and that's what's so nice about how the film unwinds - by the time Claire and Ray get past their distrust to fall in love with each other, we've fallen in love with them, faults and all, and we feel they get the reward they deserve.

It's also nice that someone else in the film learns to appreciate them as well. Not everything is as it seems, in this fine movie. And that's what makes learning about new people like Claire, Ray, Tully, and Garsik so romantic: what we fall in love with most are the people who can surprise us.

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