With the occasional breeze of a spy caper made many decades earlier, and the weight of a twisty-turning plot that’s got a fair amount of ground to cover, writer-director Tony Gilroy gives Duplicity a fair amount to get through in its 124 minute running time.
The two main elements he has to squeeze in are the caper itself, and a romance story between his two leads. And he’s on far surer ground with the former. This finds two competing company head honchos, played by Tom Wilkinson and the Paul Giamatti. The latter employs underhanded tactics to try and uncover the big new secret product of the former. That’s where the ex-CIA and ex-MI6 pairing of Julia Roberts and Clive Owen come in.
It’s fairly quickly established that either will do what’s necessary to get the job done, whether it involves taking their underwear off or not, and the pair inevitably get drawn into a romance. It’s the kind of relationship where neither side fully trusts the other, something the script has a little fun with. It’s also the kind that Julia Roberts can do in her sleep.
Clive Owen can’t, though. He does the spy elements well, but it’s simply hard to buy him in a romantic lead, and while the Roberts and Owen core isn’t as unconvincing as, say, Roberts and Nick Nolte in I Love Trouble, it’s still quite hard to buy, and subsequently hurts the core of the film. There’s just not enough chemistry between the two to make the sparks fly, and Duplicity could have really used it.
The romance holds things back further, too. For Duplicity is then hamstrung a little by a second act that flashes back on a few occasions to plug in background to the pair. That, sadly, hampers the far more interesting main plot, and it’s little surprise that when the film shifts its attention to that for the final act, things hit top gear.
For it’s this side of the film that works really, really well. It helps that Paul Giamatti is quite brilliant here, stealing any scene he walks into, and coming across every inch the paranoid company chief. But also Tony Gilroy balances the film’s swagger much better here, and manages to ratchet up the tension and intrigue really very well. He’s done this before, of course, with his debut feature Michael Clayton, but he’s more in the territory of the Ocean‘s movies here, even if he never scales the peaks of that franchise.
But he still, to his credit, comes through with a solid night out at the movies. Backed by a bright score from James Newton Howard, Duplicity may be frustrating, but it does, with its back third, ultimately reward you for battling through the saggy middle of the film. It’s also, and this a shame, a case of what could have been with slightly riskier casting, though.