Julia Roberts hasn’t been the centerpiece of a film since the moderate success Mona Lisa Smile six years ago. Distracted by kids, a new husband, and a brief foray on Broadway, Roberts has chosen her projects carefully, a rewarding decision on her part. She has, however, been steadily working, lending her talents to two Mike Nichols films: Closer in 2004 and Charlie Wilson’s War in 2007. In Duplicity, Roberts finally has the spotlight again. Directed and written by Tony Gilroy (who was behind 2007’s sharp thriller Michael Clayton), Duplicity is a film that relies largely on its elaborate plot twists and one-liner-based dialogue. Gilroy writes an entertaining script, giving us snappy line after snappy line, instead of writing realistic, character-appropriate dialogue. It’s hard to believe that anyone talks with the speed and intelligence that these people do. Consequently, a few of the actors have trouble delivering Gilroy’s dialogue. Roberts falls prey to this problem, as do a number of the movie’s supporting actors, despite their talent.
The heavily convoluted plot of Duplicity goes something like this: After a series of coincidental encounters in various locations around the globe, MI6 Agent Ray Koval (Clive Owen) and CIA Spy Claire Stenwick (Roberts) cook up a con plan to dupe their bosses (Tom Wilkinson and Paul Giamatti) thereby earning $35 million so they can live a no-stress life of passion in Rome or some other equally exotic location. Turns out things aren’t as easy as they seemed, and the plan (and thus, the plot) gets ever more complex by the minute. Duplicity is easily picked apart: its screenplay could use some cleaning up, and there is not much thematic substance. After the intensity of Michael Clayton, it seems Gilroy was ready to have fun and make a good romance caper without any deep intellectual meaning. On that level, the film succeeds — to a point. It’s frothy and sexy, basically focusing on two beautiful people running around New York. Unfortunately, the film is too densely plotted to be coherent; it’s tangled and messy. Think of memorable, light, and bantering romances like To Catch A Thief or The Thomas Crown Affair. Fun? Amusing? Entertaining? You bet. But they also have the smarts to know that simplicity is key.
Gilroy uses a technique to transition between scenes or periods in time that both perplexes and irritates. The director splits the screen into three or four squares, each with a different image. Often, three out of the four images have nothing to do with the film, and so he then focuses back in on the one that does. These transitions do nothing to advance the plot, which leads the viewer to believe this device is pure showing off. Yuck. This pretentious stylistic crutch just doesn’t work. The whole of Duplicity borrows heavily from screwball comedies of the ‘30s and ‘40s, at least tonally; and, although it definitely has its problems, the movie never failed to entertain. Clive Owen (unlike his female counterpart) handles Gilroy’s dialogue well and, as always, turns in solid work. So does character actor Wayne Duvall, who’s been giving very fine supporting performances for a number of years. James Newton Howard’s score for the film is also effective, and features a stirring mixture of traditional strings and synthetic drum beats. It works as the best of scores do: it doesn’t distract, but isn’t so concealed that it’s unnoticeable.