Monday, July 16, 2012

Who Is This Deceiving? Duplicity Is Much More Average Than Extraordinary.

The Good: Decent enough acting, Moments of plot
The Bad: Pacing, Light on character
The Basics: Slower than expected, Duplicity lacks real substance or smarts and leaves those who love spy or espionage films disappointed, despite the casting.

Sometimes, with all of the previews I see given all of the movies in theaters I take in, I am astonished to find a movie that has little to it outside the previews. In fact, while I often complain about how previews in the last few years show the entire movie, it is rare that I run into a film where that is almost literally true. And it might seem odd to preface my review of the two hour five minute movie Duplicity with that remark, but the three minute preview trailer shows almost the entire film, at least the portions with dialogue, outside the final five minutes. Seriously. More troubling than the conspiracy elements - something which I was baffled to discover people in the theater with me today did not understand given they were spelled out pretty explicitly in the final five minutes of the movie - was the fact that almost every line of dialogue and certainly every key bit of information about Duplicity is contained within the preview trailer for the film.

No, there is almost no additional substance outside what one might have seen in a preview to Duplicity. The film is a series of jumps in time returning viewers to a point five years prior, then successively closer intervals to "now," but outside that narrative technique and the movie's final resolution, there are no real surprises, no substantial differences and certainly no depth between the preview trailer and the actual film. For those who love espionage movies, then, this is a tremendous disappointment.

Ray Koval is working corporate security for Equikrom, a personal care/wellness and beauty company which is bitter rivals with Burkett Randle, when he is assigned to meet the Equikrom mole within Burkett Randle. Much to his chagrin, he discovers that his contact is none other than Claire Stenwick, a former CIA agent who burned Koval years prior as part of an espionage mission while Koval was working for MI-6. Now acting as her handler, Ray brings the corporate security and espionage department of Equikrom a true grail, the rough draft of a speech by the head of Burkett Randle, Tully, wherein the CEO of BR alludes to a massive new product the company will be rolling out which will finally sink Equikrom once and for all. Ray and his team begin hunting for the product to beat Burkett Randle to a patent to prevent the company's destruction.

But Ray and Claire's initial confrontation is an elaborate setup on the part of the former intelligence operatives, begun two years prior in Rome. As the current hunt for the new product unfolds with Claire inside Burkett Randle running a confidence game there by exposing Ray at Equikrom at every possible opportunity, Ray and Claire consider the meetings in the past two years that led them to this particular job. As the pair nears the end of their high tech heist, they must choose to trust one another or make the score for only themselves.

Duplicity is told with a main timeline in the "present" with Ray and Claire - after the opening scene - clearly working with one another to acquire the unknown product first, not to rescue Equikrom, but to sell on their own for all the money they want to be able to retire. Now in New York City as the trail of evidence that seems to lead to the mystery product puts Ray and Claire in a game of wits against their respective coworkers in corporate counterintelligence, the story is interspersed with London eighteen months ago, Miami fourteen months ago, and Cleveland three months ago with the backstory of how Ray and Claire came to trust one another and the tests to their faith in one another. It is from mostly the flashbacks that the clips shown on television and before other movies come, but they capture the flirtatious and problematic nature of the relationship between Ray and Claire.

Perhaps Duplicity would have worked better have Clive Owen not appeared so recently in The International, which had him in a similar role trying to track down another corporate conspiracy. One suspects that would not have made a significant amount of difference, though, as Duplicity does not focus all that much on character to begin with. Instead, there is a lot of dialogue that is essentially plot exposition and given the level of explanation that all of the characters give as to what is going on, it baffled me that anyone who could see would leave the theater confused as to what ultimately happens. Indeed, all one has to do at the end is recognize the characters who are standing in a room together and realize where they have seen them in the film before that last five minutes and it becomes pretty obvious exactly what has happened throughout the film.

That said, Duplicity - via writer and director Tony Gilroy - makes a passing effort to present a character struggle in the film. This takes the form of Ray and Claire alternately putting everything on the line for one another or not trusting the other and appearing to work in their own self interest as opposed to part of a whole. The problem here is that the story can go only one of two ways: either Ray and Claire are in it together and are deceiving others or they are in it for themselves. Either of those choices is resolved either with the pair pulling it off together or there being a betrayal that is revealed at the end to thwart one or both of them. Duplicity only works if there seems to be a credible threat that either of the pair is ready to bail on the other and cheat at their overall scheme for their own self interest.

Here Gilroy undermines his own attempt. Because the viewer sees Ray and Claire planning their scheme for years and testing one another well before the actual plan is initiated, the viewer never truly believes that they are not together with their plan, working together even when it appears they are turning on one another. In other words, because the viewer sees the character work and trust built before the actions have consequences - through the flashbacks whenever the main plotline gets slower - we fail to believe that any of their actions are not part of some intricate and elaborate plan on their parts.

Even more disturbing is the concept that for all of the attempts at the pretense of a character struggle dealing with how spies might actually have relationships and learn to trust one another after lying for a living, is the fact that Gilroy never gives the viewer adequate reason for the spies heading off in the direction they are. Ray and Claire meet up in Rome have three days worth of lovemaking and Claire asks Ray how much money he thinks they would need in order to stay in Rome and make love the rest of their lives. From that point on, they each set out to develop a scheme that will net them a forty million dollar nest egg to retire from the spy business on.

But the fundamental question that is not answered is: Why do these two spies only have patience to develop a scheme as opposed to work for a couple of years to earn the same amount of money? Corporate spies like Ray and Claire must make a ton of money. Ray, for example, illustrates that the frozen pizza business is a multi-billion dollar business in the United States. So, one has to imagine - especially in these times when executive bonuses are being so closely scrutinized and widely reported - that if your head of corporate counterintelligence manages to thwart a competitor's attempt to steal a product worth hundreds of millions of dollars that counterintelligence agent would receive a pretty hefty bonus for their work. Neither Ray nor Claire ever exhibits a reason for their sense of need for a ticking clock. Why are they willing to work two years to abandon their lives as trusted assets in the intelligence community instead of working for ten years to get the money legitimately? This, the character element, is the only thing that makes no real sense in Duplicity.

As a result, the heads of each company, Tully and Dick Garsick, have more motivation than Claire or Ray ever have. Tully and Garsick want to destroy each other so their business - and only their business - will survive. As a result, they are willing to be ruthless with one another. But Claire is a former CIA agent and Ray is former MI-6 and the only reason either leaves the principled world of legitimate international spying is to go off and become corporate spies, a job each intends to betray their employer while doing. The thing here is as members of MI-6 and the CIA, there ought to be an underlying assumption that the spy is principled; they are loyal to their country or cause. Yet that is not evident in Claire or Ray.

As for the acting, it is nothing extraordinary. Frankly, Julia Roberts was better or more involved in her role in Charlie Wilson's War (reviewed here!) than in Duplicity and Clive Owen seems to be relying mostly on his penetrating eyes to sell himself as Ray. In fact, as far as the acting goes, all Duplicity does is force the question of why Clive Owen isn't playing James Bond. The other principle actors, Tom Wilkinson and Paul Giamatti, fall along the lines of expected greatness. Their roles are remarkably small, they do them as well as they can and there is not much substance to their acting as a result.

Ultimately, Duplicity is a remarkably average corporate spy flick where everything blandly progresses toward a final revelation in the last five minutes that would be interesting if the rest of the movie had been worthwhile up until that point.

For other works with Tom Wilkinson, be sure to visit my reviews of:
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol
The Green Hornet
Batman Begins
Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind
The Girl With The Pearl Earring
Shakespeare In Love
Smilla’s Sense Of Snow


For other film reviews, be sure to check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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