The world has changed since the release of Michael Clayton in 2007. Real dirty tricks, in our Bernard Madoff-infected era of diminished prosperity, feel even less tolerable than they did two years ago; fictional dirty tricks feel less entertaining. The mood swing may result in a beneficial recalibration of our national moral compass, but the course correction wreaks havoc on our appetite for playfulness. Today's worried taxpayer may not be in the mood for the diversion to be found in Duplicity, a determinedly lighthearted movie about corporate malfeasance with billion-dollar repercussions. Like Michael Clayton, Duplicity was written and directed by Tony Gilroy. And as with his earlier feature, Gilroy's articulate script is a stylish structure engineered to support sly double crosses, fake-outs, and gotchas. Unlike in Clayton, though, the twists in this new puzzle are their own ends, not the means to express a more resonant despair. And puzzles feel so very...pre-Obama. As a result, the quick-witted banter whipped up by Gilroy would mean little if it weren't voiced by fabulously attractive actors.
In this last challenge, at any rate, Duplicity is in luck: The movie features Julia Roberts and Clive Owen as Claire and Ray, a couple of corporate spies and a couple in love who must hide their romance while appearing to work as snoops on the payrolls of competing multinational pharmaceutical companies, ferreting out the details of a revolutionary new product under development. The kick is that Claire and Ray never really trust one another, nor should they, since each is regularly punk'd. And so is the audience; an accretion of flashbacks to romantic skirmishes that took place in other cities, on previous calendar dates, teaches the viewer to discard logic (and think fondly of the more energetic globe-scrambling action that powered Gilroy's scripts for the Bourne trilogy). The movie's accepted rule is that consequences don't matter, not when Roberts and Owen look so glamorous and handsome together. (There Will Be Blood cinematographer Robert Elswit shoots the pair as if through a brandy glass, all rich tones and honeyed sophistication; Albert Wolsky costumes the two in the classiest contemporary wardrobe I've seen in years.) Tom Wilkinson and Paul Giamatti add cartoon color as the respective pharma CEOs, the former a sleek great white shark, the latter a more nervous and more amusingly Giamattian hammerhead. And to seal the deal on frivolity, the secret product so desperately tracked turns out to be—well, let's say in bald terms, it doesn't contain powers of life or death. The filmmaker left that heaviness behind with the conscience-stricken company man played by Wilkinson in Michael Clayton.
Duplicity doesn't have depth but it does have Julia Roberts, in full Hollywood movie-star mode. And for filmgoers with scaled-back expectations, that news may be enough. It is an undeniable thrill to see her again amazingly, naturally, inimitably starry as ever over 20 years into her scrutinized career, her sleek, horsey, long-limbed charms communicable with a simple trademark beaming smile. Here is a celebrity addressable on a first-name basis not an approach recommended when extending a hand to pet the tigress Angelina Jolie. Julia is her own top secret product.
But Julia er, Ms. Robert definitely needs the right partner to set off her strong features. And here, too, this over-the-counter-strength movie, fine for a tickle but useless for making sense of what ails the American soul, benefits from prescription-strength chemistry between leading lady and leading man. Owen, with his own hooded, faintly dangerous sex appeal and onscreen history with Roberts (the two fought so nakedly in Closer), encourages his costar to let loose not just her pealing laugh but also her mature steeliness. Gilroy counts on a Thin Man-style undercurrent of sexual sparring to sustain our interest in two scheming corporate operatives despite the fact that nothing much else is going on. But if that's all he wanted, he might well have paired Roberts with her old Ocean's comrade in flirtatious tomfoolery, Clayton star George Clooney. Owen's edge only makes a duplicitous viewer me wish there were more at stake than the game. B