With "The International" and now "Duplicity" Clive Owen plays international operatives in back-to-back movies. You could cast Clive Owen in "Shrek 4" and he'd probably want to play an international operative. Even when the guy is washing his car, I'll bet he looks like an international operative.
"The International" required Owen to look like he hadn't slept for two days. It was deadly serious. In "Duplicity," he's often luxuriating under the Egyptian cotton sheets in a five-star hotel, munching on fruit as he engages in quadruple-entendre banter with Julia Roberts.
Tony Gilroy's followup to "Michael Clayton" (one of the best films of 2007) is a frothy Rubik's Cube, equal parts romantic comedy and jigsaw puzzle thriller. The cinematography is stunning, the dialogue is crackling.
And the viewer's head will be spinning as he tries to keep up with globe-trotting, time-jumping plot, which is maybe just a little too clever for its own good.
Owen plays former MI-6 agent Ray Koval. Roberts, returning to true leading lady form, sparkles as Claire Stenwick, a former CIA officer. She once took him for a ride, in more ways than one, in Dubai. Since then, they've formed a pact. They'll each take jobs working counter-intel for a major corporation, and they'll set up an elaborate "play" that will leave them with enough money to retire and spend the rest of their days between the sheets in Rome, Miami, wherever.
Tom Wilkinson and Paul Giamatti play rival titans of industry. Little matter that their companies make products such as mouthwash, shampoo. toothpaste and skin creams. They treat their rivalry as if they're dueling heads of state engaged in a deadly Cold War. Each company has a team of spies who spend their days doing undercover work or holed up in high-tech labs, amassing as much information as possible about the other operation.
Ray works for Omnikrom and Claire works for Burkett & Randle, though at times it appears as if it's the other way around and just maybe it IS the other way around. They seem to be working together, as we see in flashbacks that take us to Rome, south Florida, even Cleveland for crying out loud. But maybe Claire's playing Ray, and it's possible Ray is playing Claire. Think "Mr. and Mrs. Smith" without all the shooting.
With a jazzy soundtrack, cinematography that seems inspired by Travel & Leisure and dialogue worthy of a 1930s film, "Duplicity" is far more concerned with style than substance. Gilroy gets in some timely digs at the corporate culture, and Wilkinson and Giammati have great fun lampooning "titans of industry" who never pause to think about the silliness of what they're doing----but "Duplicity" is mostly about watching two terrific-looking actors dancing the eternal dances of love and trust and sex. You know a film like this is going to give you a twist and then a twist and then another twist, and I'm not totally buying the way it all plays out. Extremely smart characters all of a sudden get a little lazy, a little sloppy. And I do think some viewers will get exasperated with all the jumping back and forth in time.
That said, "Duplicity" is two hours of breezy escapism. Nearly two decades after "Pretty Woman," Julia Roberts is once again in a luxury hotel, exchanging quips with a man she's met under unusual circumstances. And we can still see how any man can fall for her, regardless of the circumstances.