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Duplicity is a strange project from Tony Gilroy who's probably best known for adapting the Bourne books to film and more recently for writing a directing the very serious drama Michael Clayton . I can see how this project might appeal to him, or rather I can see how a studio would buy into the potential of the project. After all, doesn't it sound fun to take someone well versed in the spy thriller genre and have him reshape familiar elements so they fit into the romantic comedy mold? I mean just imagine, you could explore real relationship issues of trust and betrayal against the backdrop of international corporate espionage and cutthroat business practices. This would allow for nice locations, some sexy encounters and verbal foreplay, as well as a suspenseful heist driving the narrative. Throw in stars like Julia Roberts and Clive Owen, and indie favorites like Tom Wilkinson and Paul Giametti, and how can you miss? Right? Well sort of.

Duplicity is a polished Hollywood product that showcases it's stars nicely. They look good and they coast through the film without breaking a sweat and unencumbered by any thoughts of developing character. That makes all this passable entertainment. But any cleverness that Gilroy thought he might be able to bring to these elements and this genre twisting is missing. The conceit here is a little bit like Prizzi's Honor (in which a hit man and a hit woman fall in love and then discover each has been hired to kill the other). Like that absurd black comedy, Duplicity finds odd ways that work and love intersect and complicate relationships. But Duplicity doesn't know if it wants to be a romance, spy thriller, or biting relationship comedy. In more experienced hands it might have been able to be all three and effectively deliver sexy glamour, suspense and laughs. But Gilroy is not in his element here as he was with the Bourne films.

Gilroy crafts a plot that turns back on itself more than once. We start with a "meet cute" encounter with Clive Owen's Ray Koval trying to pick up Julia Robert's Claire Stenwick. She ends up bedding and drugging him so she can steal some documents. Then the two meet up again in New York years later. Now they are working for corporations instead of governments or at least so it seems. He's still smarting from the encounter and she seems to have forgotten it entirely. Then the film jumps back in time for repeated flashbacks that are at first puzzling but then grow more clear as the con game plays out. All the elements eventually tie together but not in the slick, clever manner that elicits a satisfying sigh. It's more of a groan of having expectations met rather than surpassed.

Photo caption:

Paul Giametti and Tom Wilkinson in the best scene from Duplicity (Universal)

Surprisingly, the most enjoyable material in the film involves the secondary characters played by Wilkinson and Giametti. Their corporate executives provide entertaining diversion, especially in a silent, slow motion encounter on a airplane runway where they have to be physically pulled apart. That inspired exchange was the best thing in the film.

Roberts has been better photographed before and Owen tends to look a bit bored delivering his lines. Owen is an actor whose stillness and calm work well when played off of other things (think back to Croupier or I'll Sleep When I'm Dead ). He's an actor who can convey a smartness behind a silent stare. But here he doesn't have much to play off of. He and Roberts look good together but generate no onscreen sparks. The film pales in comparison to the fireworks generated by their exchanges in Closer where writer Patrick Marber really knew how to craft dialogue that had some zing to it (along with razor sharp edge). Both stars here just seem to be casually going through the motions.

Duplicity (rated PG-13 for language and some sexual content) has nothing to distinguish itself from any other Hollywood romantic fare. It's too bad that talented folks like Owen, Wilkinson, Giametti and Gilroy wasted their time on this forgettable fluff.

Companion viewing: Closer, Prizzi's Honor, Shoot Em Up, Croupier

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