Duplicity ★★★

2009 Ranked

A stylish, yet flawed, romantic crime comedy, Duplicity is a mixed bag. With compelling twists and a great look at corporate espionage, this film from director Tony Gilroy is bogged down by a nonlinear narrative and a lackluster romance. As a result, the plot becomes hard to follow when the film jumps from the past to the present to the past constantly and, towards the end, stops helping you figure out where each scene is taking place. Even worse, these flashbacks are always dry, humorless, and chemistry-less when they put together former MI6 agent Ray Koval (Clive Owen) and former CIA agent Claire Stenwick (Julia Roberts). Lovers who work for competing companies, the film details the efforts of both sides to outwit the other and beat them in the marketplace. Of course, that is when the couple are not having sex in an exotic location.

For the positives, as a business major, I loved the corporate espionage. Okay, business is really, really boring. However, this film triggered why I am okay with working in this world. The anticipation of new products, studying the competition, and going to war, are all incredibly compelling to watch unfold. Of course, real life pales in comparison and is largely quite dull. Duplicity, however, manages to make a shareholder meeting completely compelling. With the cure for baldness on the way, who will be the first to the marketplace? Only time will find out, but there are moles and spies on both sides that make the battle between former business partners, portrayed by Tom Wilkinson and Paul Giamatti, the highlight of the film. Honestly, Owen and Roberts should be cut out of this film in favor of the more compelling story. Two former business partners going to war with one another over a breakthrough with corporate espionage and a fractured relationship between them. For those that have seen this film, tell me that is not the more compelling tale?

Unfortunately, strewn in between these great sections are a lot of romantic moments between spies that merely further complicate the film. Having them repeat lines, jumping back in time to just show them have sex, showing their distrust, and showing some of their planning, Duplicity struggles to bring life to its romantic moments. While its crime elements are top-notch and slick, the romance is lifeless. Owen and Roberts try, but putting two people that audiences find appealing together and hoping it will work is a bad idea. As a result, the romance here is largely unappealing and passionless. While some moments do add to the final reveal, the film could cut out all of the romance scenes, aside from the few where they plot their own espionage, and lose nothing. As for the comedy here, it largely fails and I had to keep reminding myself that it was supposed to be a comedy.

With the romance and comedy elements failing, it leaves just the crime portion as being any good. As mentioned, this crime portion does succeed terrifically with a twisty and unpredictable sequence of events. Here, Wilkinson and Giamatti nail their limited roles and demand to be explored deeper. Clive Owen and Julia Roberts also do quite well in the film, even in the romance scenes. However, they both really soar when being calculating and cold spies. In particular, Owen is great using his charisma and slick nature to woo marks and complete tasks. In addition to the fun corporate espionage, watching this duo do their job is worth the watch and thoroughly entertaining.

Stylistically, the film is pretty compelling. It is hard to describe the technique Tony Gilroy uses when flashing back or jumping forward again. It is not a split screen, rather he takes a shot and begins to slowly shrink the frame. Other shots may appear and one will then grow. It is pretty unique and not too bad to look at. Honestly, I am hard pressed to think of a film off the top of my head with a similar technique and I am not sure what it would be called. That said, I just wish it did not signal my least favorite moments were about to happen again or else I would have really loved the technique.

A messy and flawed romantic crime comedy, Duplicity is not really funny or romantic. However, its crime and spy elements are so good, it allows me to look past its flaws to a degree. With great style and the assured hand of Gilroy, Duplicity may be a bit contrived and cliched, but it remains unpredictable through unforeseen twists that show just how dirty this corporate rivalry has become.

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