Thursday, March 26, 2009

Duplicity (Universal, 2009)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film we picked out was Duplicity, which I’d been alternately curious and skeptical about ever since I read a profile of its writer-director, Tony Gilroy, written by D. T. Max and published in the March 16 edition of The New Yorker. Gilroy had previously written and directed the film Michael Clayton, starring George Clooney as a sell-out corporate attorney who regains his conscience after realizing that his law firm is on the wrong side of a product-safety case, which I thought was a good movie but would have been even better if Gilroy hadn’t played so fast and loose with the time frame and given us information in the same cautious dribs-and-drabs way a chemist would use a pipette to add drops of chemicals into a solution to measure the result.

Duplicity is an even more confusing, less coherent movie that takes one particular thriller trope, the “reversal,” and runs with it. As D. T. Max explained in his New Yorker profile, “Gilroy told me, ‘A reversal is just anything that’s a surprise. It’s a way of keeping the audience interested.’ … Duplicity is so crammed with reversals that Stephen Schiff, a screenwriter who is a friend of Gilroy’s, says that the story ‘achieves a kind of meta quality’” — a polite way of saying that Duplicity is so totally built around reversals that essentially the reversals become the story.

Duplicity opens in Dubai in 2003, where at a party given by the U.S. Embassy to celebrate the Fourth of July American CIA agent Claire Stenwick (Julia Roberts, top-billed and playing her first starring role since she dropped out of moviemaking five years ago to have two kids — her character name is Gilroy’s deliberate tribute to classic-era actress Barbara Stanwyck) and British MI6 agent Ray Koval (Clive Owen, looking so beautifully to the secret-agent manner born it seems a wonder why he instead of Daniel Craig wasn’t tapped as the latest James Bond) meet, hate each other at first sight and naturally, this being a movie, end up having sex. Only Claire waits until he’s fast asleep and slips out of their room the next morning carrying a manila envelope, presumably containing some priceless secret they were both after. They run into each other again in New York in 2008, after they’ve both quit government work and gone into corporate espionage, hiring themselves out to various companies that are either looking to steal valuable formulae for new products from their competitors or prevent their new products from being similarly stolen.

At first we’re led to believe that they haven’t seen each other since Dubai and can’t stand each other, but later we find that they met in 2006 in Rome and they’re actually plotting together as both lovers and partners in a sting to make a big-bucks sale of some particularly exciting corporate secret and earn a pile on which they can retire together. The film goes back and forth in time, cutting in flashbacks with a title explaining the new date and location and returning to the current action by having the screen image shrink photographically, then get joined by three other images in a split-screen effect, which in turn dissolves to a full-frame image of the “present” time frame. It’s a horrendously confusing movie, based around a MacGuffin (a formula for a shampoo that can restore hair to bald men) that itself turns out [spoiler alert!] to be an elaborate fake, concocted to fool the CEO of a rival company and the Roberts and Owen characters, who have signed on with him to steal it.

There are a lot of things wrong with Duplicity, including the fact that it’s one of those cynical modern movies which contains no characters we actually like — the leads are slimeballs and so are all the other people they’re up against — and the fact that just about everything in it had been done earlier and better by other filmmakers. Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest was the movie I kept thinking of as I watched this one — though North by Northwest has its own flaws (the naïveté of Cary Grant’s character is almost risible — even granted that he’s supposed to be playing an ordinary person who’s unwittingly stumbled into an espionage plot — and the exposition scene in which we’re told that the international super-spy Grant’s character has been mistaken for does not in fact exist is clunkily and jarringly spliced in), somehow Hitchcock and his writer, Ernest Lehman, were able within a straightforward linear storyline to put far more drama, suspense, subtlety and emotional power into this sort of story than Gilroy has here.

Hitchcock also had a better female star; Eva Marie Saint is superb in her portrayal of a woman literally caught between several worlds, whereas Julia Roberts here seems to be channeling Elizabeth Taylor. All too often she pulls that nasty trick Liz used to — staring straight at the camera and saying to herself, “Here I am! Ain’t I beautiful?” Roberts’ good looks have been strikingly well preserved, but she’s never particularly impressed me as an actress (the best performance I’ve seen her give is at the start of her career, in Mystic Pizza, where she had the advantages of youth, freshness and not having to carry the entire movie; in Pretty Woman she was good, but no better than any other actress of the right age and figure would have been; and Erin Brockovich was a Capra ripoff that either of Capra’s favorite actresses, Stanwyck and Jean Arthur, could have played better). Owen does better but, like his co-star, he’s at the mercy of a Gilroy script that doesn’t give him much of a motivation for anything he does and refuses to decide whether we’re supposed to think these people are lovable rogues or detestable crooks.

And North by Northwest isn’t the only other older, better movie Duplicity rips off; the scene in which the protagonists discover that the formula they stole was a fake seems so much like the ending of The Maltese Falcon I half expected Roberts to whine like Mary Astor, “But that is the formula I got from Kemidov! I swear it!” There’s also a gimmick in which a key conversation between the two leads is recorded and played back several times in the movie, each time in a different context from which we’re supposed to infer a different meaning, which seemed to impress D. T. Max no end (“By now, the audience has heard their key exchange several times. They might not be sure who is gaming whom, but it is increasingly clear that they mean something to each other”), from which I infer that Max has never seen Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, which pulled the same gimmick but with far more chilling and powerful results.

Duplicity so far has been a box-office disappointment, and the people who liked it are saying that’s because the modern-day movie audience can’t handle moral complexity — though maybe it’s just because what they don’t like isn’t moral complexity but storytelling confusion from a writer-director (should I trot out my old joke that the director, Tony Gilroy, is also the writer and therefore has no one to blame but himself?) who thinks he can impress his audience by perplexing the hell out of them.