Writer-director Tony Gilroy last took on corporate espionage in his 2007 directorial debut Michael Clayton, a movie that took very seriously the dangerous malfeasance of multinational conglomerates, and warned against a lack of vigilance and oversight when it comes to corporate law. So it’s a bit odd to see his second film as director, Duplicity, take almost the exact opposite approach: Duplicity, too, is about corporate espionage, but it depicts the ruthless maneuvering of two rival chemical companies as an inherently silly endeavor that harms only the blowhard CEOs obsessed with being first on the market with a new product.
While Clayton was a steely, socially responsible conspiracy thriller in the vein of ’70s movies like All the President’s Men, Duplicity reaches back even further, to the caper films of the 1960s and the rapid-fire romantic comedies of the 1930s and ’40s. It intermittently succeeds at capturing both tones, but gets too bogged down in the convoluted backroom deals and double-crosses that Clayton managed to make so memorable. That’s because Duplicity ultimately isn’t about boardroom misconduct—it’s about the zippy chemistry between former secret agents Ray Koval (Clive Owen) and Claire Stenwick (Julia Roberts), who find themselves on either side of a nasty feud between the aforementioned chemical giants.
It appears initially that Ray and Claire are meeting up for the first time since an ill-fated encounter five years ago in Dubai, where she seduced him, drugged him and made off with some sensitive documents. Now both retired from government service, they’ve been engaged by CEO A (Paul Giamatti) to find out what confidential plan CEO B (Tom Wilkinson) has in the works. Claire is a mole inside Company B, and Ray is her handler.
Except, of course, not. After the crackerjack Dubai opening, complete with clever time-jumps via split-screen, Gilroy takes a long time establishing the ultimately mundane and irrelevant rivalries between the two main companies, and it’s not until 45 minutes in that we find out what the plot really is. Ray and Claire have actually met numerous times since that first hook-up in Dubai, and they’ve decided to kick-start their new life together by stealing for themselves the secrets they’ve been hired to steal for their employers, and then selling them to the highest bidder.
It’s a story that requires complete about-faces at several points, and Gilroy does a decent job of keeping the balls in the air. But he never makes a convincing case that all the back-stabbing and double-agenting really counts for anything, and the movie comes alive almost exclusively in the flashbacks that show Ray and Claire formulating their plan while on various passionate rendezvous in exotic locales. Owen and Roberts work well together, and the dance of romance and mistrust between Ray and Claire is sharp and extremely entertaining. There’s also a great suspense sequence toward the end of the movie, with Claire racing against time to copy a sensitive document before her superiors discover her, all while Ray is guiding her over the phone.
The rest of the movie drags, though, and Owen and Roberts spend far too much time apart. The ending, meant no doubt to be one last sly subversion of the heist formula, turns out to be a serious letdown, with big moments for characters that Gilroy has given the audience no reason to care about. Stylishly shot by Robert Elswit and with a complex structure that frequently snakes back on itself, Duplicity seems designed as Gilroy’s bid for Steven Soderbergh territory, his Out of Sight or Ocean’s 11. He gets the basics right, but as the characters in his movies inevitably learn, it’s the details that really trip you up.