Let's get this out of the way: Duplicity isn’t nearly as awful as the previews would have you believe. In fact, I dare say you’ll leave with a smile on your face, feeling fairly entertained — which I believe is often the real purpose of going to movies, despite what highbrow critics and art house dweebs would have you believe. Duplicity will also challenge you, as you desperately try to out-think the plot and arrive to the conclusion before the film reveals it. You’ll want to boast to your neighbor that you “knew it all along.” The problem will be: you won’t.
That isn’t to say Duplicity is some streamlined and suspenseful thriller, whose every turn is more unpredictable than the previous one. Many of the twists utilized in Tony Gilroy’s dark spy comedy have been strip-mined until all that's left is black dust. The focus of Duplicity isn’t on trying to consistently surprise the audience; in fact, Gilroy does his best to set up each act with a series of flashbacks revolving around the relationship between Ray Koval (Clive Owen) and Claire Stenwick (Julia Roberts).
From moment one the audience is part of the action, thrust into the unfolding story headfirst and without proper protection. At first, the plot moves slowly as the film feels out whether it will be about the subtlety of comedy or the subtlety of the spy genre. In these first 20-30 minutes, Duplicity is kept afloat by the natural back-and-forth between Clive Owen and Julia Roberts. Universal is banking that you’ll be drawn in by staring at the two beautiful 40-somethings, and Gilroy plays up the sex appeal as the plot struggles to catch up. Owen and Roberts sell their parts well, drawing everyone into the elaborate game that consumes the back half of the film.
The story revolves around two competing CEOs: Burkett-Randle’s Howard Tully (Tom Wilkinson) and Equikrom’s Dick Garsik (Paul Giamatti). The rivals are both in the business of spying on the other in hopes of stealing the next great product. Wilkinson and Giamatti steal the movie with their razor-sharp acting skills, turning flat dialogue into vitriolic froth. Giamatti’s Dick Garsik is the sort of corporate scumbag who would torch every bridge in a game of one-upsmanship. Wilkinson’s Howard Tully plays his character much cooler and closer to the vest — careful not to reveal any information through body language. Paired with the dynamic of Owens and Roberts and a solid supporting cast, Duplicity scores high on acting chops.
Where Duplicity fails is in its clichéd plot. Gilroy is adamant to keep us in the know through most of the foreseen twists and turns, as if he predicted the audience would know what was up ahead — and they will right up until the end. He’s careful to try to tie every loose end throughout to make the ending worth the wait. But you’ll keep waiting... and waiting... and waiting. With a film as transparent as Duplicity, the action should be short, to the point, concise -- none of which are qualities one could use to describe the film. Duplicity is an hour-and-twenty minute film trapped in a two-hour body. Like a spy, the audience should be immersed quickly, given the pertinent details, and out of the job as quickly as possible. So, as Duplicity begins to stretch, so does our patience. The rapid-fire banter that defined much of the movie’s beginning is continually scaled back until there’s very little material left for Owens and Roberts. The film bottoms out before it completely climaxes, while the one-liners and fleet-footed comedy are left in the dust, replaced by hackneyed romantic comedy fluff and James Bond filler.
Duplicity tries to be a bit of everything for everyone, and in that regard it fails. However, there are so many smart and entertaining moments scattered throughout that, as far as prototypical date movies go, this movie is the cream of the crop. But I guess the film dweebs have a point: Yes, movies should entertain, but there should be a bit of substance to make them truly satisfying. And there’s just not enough substance to elevate Duplicity above mindless fun.