Friday, April 3, 2009


"All's Fair in Love and War"

After screenwriter Tony Gilroy's powerful directing debut with "Michael Clayton," one looked forward to what the talented triple-threat would come up with next, considering that film's street-smarts, sharp characterizations and deft direction. What we got is "Duplicity" and it's a wisp of a movie, a comedy without laughs, and a drama without weight; a shell-game; much ado about nothing; more in keeping with Gilroy's in-name-only association with the "Ocean's Eleven" series than his better efforts.

As with "
Michael Clayton," the playing field is the backrooms of corporate America, where warring CEO's protect their fiefdoms from interlopers and pitch pre-emptive strikes to keep them at bay. Their knights: a string of white-ops intelligence teams who spy on the competition, using the techniques once used in political battle-fields. That back-drop is nothing new: John le Carré's been using the "corporate espionage is every bit as sordid as political espionage" gambit in his works since the fall of Russia. le Carré even went so far as to suppose spy agencies ginning up threats to justify their budgets and existence, just as they do in the business world. Need a purchase order? Create a threat, and the money rolls right in.

Gilroy sets the tone early by beginning his film with a lo-mo credit crawl where Corporate heads
Tom Wilkinson and Paul Giamatti grapple at each other like pawing animals in a zoo. The silliness of these two going at each other in artfully composed tableau should be funnier than it is, but the whole thing feels like such a surreal con that you don't buy it for a second. Hence, the stakes in the story seem minor, even the McGuffin* is tame, as the two adversaries are pharmaceutical companies. In the middle of it are two ex-spies Ray Koval (Clive Owen, nattily rumpled) and Claire Stenwick (Julia Roberts), who know each other only too well, she having stolen some Air Force secrets from him during a one-night stand at a Dubai fete years ago.** The encounter stings Koval, and now, years later, he's realizing that Stenwick is the Player on the Other Side in their current Corporate Wars. It's an interesting study of two people so locked in strategic thought that they might drown standing in quick-sand, so pre-occupied are they with motivation and nuance and who might try to move first. Interesting, but not always entertaining. At times, the mind-games approach "Get Smart!" absurdities, as both sides play the "I'm thinking they're thinking I'm thinking that they're thinking" game. A little of that goes a long way, especially if the protagonists don't have a smile on their faces when they're saying it. And the humor is only of the clever variety in "Duplicity," not particularly the amusing kind.

Still, it's one of those movies that travels well: to Rome, New York, London and the Bahamas, the costumes are fine, but the whole thing has all the zing of champagne left open overnight (composer
James Newton Howard tries to add some zip by tossing in some Spanish dance music). It all seems too familiar and a bit too flat.

"Duplicity" is a cable-watcher.

* After Hitchcock's name for "the secret" that parties try to retrieve in a suspense film, usually it doesn't matter what it is—after the story of the man who inquired to another man what was in his suitcase: "It's a McGuffin, for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands." "But there aren't any lions in the Scottish Highlands!" "Then, that's no McGuffin!"

** This also seems overly familiar with "Prizzi's Honor," "Undercover Blues," and "Mr. & Mrs. Smith" as previous warring spy-couple films.

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