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Should I Watch..? 'Duplicity'

Benjamin is a former volunteer DJ at his local hospital radio station. He has been reviewing films online since 2004.

Film's poster

Film's poster

What's the big deal?

Duplicity is a romantic comedy crime film released in 2009 and was both written and directed by Tony Gilroy. The film follows two ex-spies who decide to collaborate on an audacious con job in the private sector. The film stars Julia Roberts, Clive Owen, Paul Giamatti and Tom Wilkinson. The film was considered a disappointment after Gilroy's success with his previous debut film, Michael Clayton in 2007, which earned global takings just over $78 million. Critics were generally mixed with many praising the work of Roberts and Owen. However, many criticised the film's overly complex narrative and incoherence. Personally, I feel that the film is extremely reminiscent of Steven Soderbergh's Ocean's Eleven with its use of split-screen, flashbacks and effortlessly cool protagonists but sadly, isn't able to conjure up the same sort of magic despite the chemistry displayed by its two leads.

Watchable

Trailer

What's it about?

At a party in Dubai, MI6 agent Ray Koval meets and falls for Claire Stenwick who is working for the CIA. After trying to seduce her, Ray quickly discovers that Claire is not who she seems after she spikes his drink and wakes up just in time to see her make off with some stolen information he had acquired. Five years later and the pair have now left their spying days behind them when they meet up again in Rome. After spending a few days rekindling their relationship, Claire makes Ray an offer to join her on a grand money-making scheme where they can retire in comfort together. Agreeing to the plan, they then begin working out exactly how to pull the job off.

Some time later, Claire gets a job at pharmaceutical firm Burkett & Randle working in counter-intelligence under the gaze of CEO Howard Tully. Tully delivers a speech to employees promoting the need for vigilance against corporate theft before promising that a revolutionary new product is coming soon. Meanwhile, Ray gets a similar position at Burkett & Randle's chief rival, Equikrom and soon, the pair of them decide to steal the formula for themselves before selling it for millions of dollars. But can they keep their attention on the job or even trust each other as the stakes begin to rise?

Main Cast

ActorRole

Julia Roberts

Claire Stenwick

Clive Owen

Ray Koval

Tom Wilkinson

Howard Tully

Paul Giamatti

Richard "Dick" Garsik

Denis O'Hare

Duke Monahan

Technical Info

DirectorTony Gilroy

Screenplay

Tony Gilroy

Running Time

125 minutes

Release Date (UK)

20th March, 2009

Rating

12A

Genre

Comedy, Crime, Romance, Thriller

Owen (left) and Roberts (right) make a steamy and smouldering couple with legitimate chemistry in this convoluted caper.

Owen (left) and Roberts (right) make a steamy and smouldering couple with legitimate chemistry in this convoluted caper.

What's to like?

While there are multiple narrative differences between Duplicity and Ocean's Eleven, it's apparent that the tone and style of the latter film was exactly what Gilroy was aiming for. This film looks the absolute business with gorgeous location shots, lush set design and almost tangible chemistry between the two leads. Both Roberts and Owen are on fine form and make a more-than-plausible romantic couple to base this film around. Like the film itself, they feel quite old fashioned and as a pair, I reckon they could slot into any movie utilising a Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy relationship at the forefront. If anything, their relationship is more interesting than the film itself.

The film is certainly different from most other rom-coms which focus on the romantic complications instead of the character's jobs. Here, the film works hard to make itself into almost a heist film with crosses and double-crosses and a complex narrative that plays with its audience throughout. And it definitely does its best to use every trick in the book - flashbacks, differing perspectives, dialogue reappraisal and metaphorical sequences combine to make this one of the most confusing pictures I've seen since the last thirty minutes of 2001: A Space Odyssey with its trippy light show and giant space baby. Perhaps viewers more used to challenging fare like this might be able to make more sense of it than I was but judging by the historical reactions to this film, those viewers will be in the minority.

Fun Facts

  • Production on the film started on March 9th, 2008 while shooting finished May 27th the same year. Almost exactly a year after the start of production (March 11th, 2009), the film received its world premiere in London's Leicester Square.
  • Roberts and Giamatti previously worked together in My Best Friend's Wedding. Giamatti and Owen previously worked together in Shoot 'Em Up. Owen and Robert previously worked together in Closer. Poor Tom Wilkinson didn't work with any of them until this film.
  • The film is arguably responsible for derailing the directing career of Tony Gilroy who is largely known more for his screenwriting these days. After Duplicity was released, Gilroy directed only one more film - the middling sequel The Bourne Legacy - before turning his attention to writing Star Wars spin-off Rogue One.

What's not to like?

The problem with Duplicity is that it tries too hard. It tries too hard to confuse its viewers and, to be frank, it does this very well. It overindulges in style over substance, sacrificing cohesion for glossy visuals and expensive designer costumes. And the film can't decide what it wants to be - a battle-of-the-sexes rom-com or a corporate thriller or a comedic heist film - so it tries to be all three. And unfortunately, it doesn't manage to juggle its balls (so to speak) and fails on all three counts. It isn't funny enough to generate any real humour beyond the banter between Roberts and Owen, who work hard to inject their chemistry into the film but not enough to make it feel legit. And the story - essentially about feuding CEOs and corporate espionage - feels a bit too niche to appeal to anyone besides business types and is just not exciting enough.

In spite of the film's faults, Duplicity is an easy enough film to watch but it washes over you in such a way that it doesn't make much of an impact at all. It's like an expensive meal, made with the finest ingredients and cooked by a Michelin-starred master chef to get the exquisite blend of complex flavours to dance on your tongue but in the end, it tastes about as exciting as a mayonnaise sandwich on white bread. It underwhelms terribly, promising much but delivering very little to get excited about. I wanted some exposition - actually, any exposition would have been nice! - and more Giamatti who I always enjoy watching on screen except when he isn't miscast in Amazing Spider-Man 2. Most of all, I wanted the film to match the enjoyable nature and wonderfully entertaining Ocean's Eleven that this film clearly aspires to be.

The always enjoyable Paul Giamatti (seen here in the TV series 'Billions') appears as a scheming CEO who sadly doesn't get enough screen time for my liking.

The always enjoyable Paul Giamatti (seen here in the TV series 'Billions') appears as a scheming CEO who sadly doesn't get enough screen time for my liking.

Should I watch it?

With a smidge of irony, Duplicity promises to be a good-looking and engaging battle of wits between two good-looking stars but ends up being an uneven and stodgy blend of too many ideas and not enough conviction. It is far too clever for its good with a complex story being almost incomprehensible and reducing the slam-dunk success of the central romance between Owen and Roberts into a fairly boring and slow affair. Yes, the film may look great and the pair of lead actors really try their best but this is still a bland and mostly forgettable effort that should have kept things simple.

Great For: corporate business types, amateur sleuths to work out what's going on, disappearing from your memory, proving how good Roberts & Owen are on screen together

Not So Great For: rom-com fans, heist film fans, the easily distracted

What else should I watch?

What's most frustrating about Duplicity is that there is a good film here trying to get out but is constantly tripped up by the needlessly complicated chronology and by trying to be too many things at once. Basically, it needed to keep things as basic as possible - not every film can make such intricacies work to its benefit in the way Pulp Fiction or Memento did. Even directors used to such trickery can be undone - Christopher Nolan is probably one of the best directors currently working in Hollywood but even he struggled to keep a cap on the time-travelling madness of Tenet and that was from the same man who brought us the equally mind-bending Inception.

Gilroy has enjoyed far greater success as a screenwriter, as I mentioned earlier. From early adaptations of Dolores Claiborne and The Devil's Advocate in the Nineties to the enormous success with the Jason Bourne franchise, Gilroy hit solid gold with Rogue One which was a glorious prequel to A New Hope that matched the visual style and atmosphere of the increasingly archaic original. As a result, he now finds himself writing the new Star Wars TV show coming in 2022, Andor which sees Diego Luna reprise his Rebel spy character from Rogue One for a series of adventures during the early years of the Rebel Alliance.

© 2021 Benjamin Cox

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