A cinematic caper is a soufflé. If you handle it carefully, you end up with a fluffy delight (see Ocean’s Eleven); if not, you end up with a big inedible lump (see Ocean’s Twelve).
There’s also a bit of stage magic to the enterprise, in the sense that as an audience member you’re waiting—expecting, actually—to be fooled. The con is part of the fun, but Tony Gilroy’s Duplicity takes it a step farther. He’s interested in the psychology of people who live convinced that no one can be trusted.
He does so with a dynamic, backtracking narrative that begins in 2003, with a first meeting at the American consulate in Dubai between Ray (Clive Owen) and Claire (Julia Roberts). It’s chemistry at first sight, except that they’re both spies—Ray for Britain’s MI6, Claire for the CIA—and that first meeting ends both in bed, and with some sensitive intelligence compromised.
Flash forward five years, and both Ray and Claire have segued into the field of corporate espionage. Two CEOs (Tom Wilkinson and Paul Giamatti) of rival personal-hygiene companies have become bitter enemies—conveyed in a brilliant opening credits sequence—and Ray and Claire become part of their battle over a breakthrough product discovery. But whose side are they on? And are they actually on the same side? Gilroy’s Michael Clayton already established that he was a writer with some chops as a visual filmmaker, but he takes his game to a new level here. With crisp, unapologetic pacing, he whips through flashbacks and double-crosses in a way that actually demands attention. He’s written a smart, funny story, and he expects you to earn its payoffs.
And those payoffs involve more than superficial entertainment. Duplicity finds slick romantic comedy in the shaky search for a partner you can trust only through a leap of faith. The final “big reveal” isn’t just a kicker; it’s a reminder that in a heartless world, you hope for at least one person you know is on your side.
DUPLICITY ***.5 Julia Roberts, Clive Owen, Paul Giamatti. Rated PG-13