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In the old Production Code days, back when you faded out before the sex and kisses were without tongue, romance and seduction were done with words. The witty, sparkling repartee of movies like The Philadelphia Story and His Girl Friday has been imitated so badly, so many times in modern movies, that we'd all nearly convinced ourselves that you needed an accent like Cary Grant to sound anything but dopey when putting on the moves.
But now we have Duplicity, an effervescent burst of snappy writing, direction and star chemistry that burns a hole through the screen. Julia Roberts and Clive Owen are as funny and sexy as Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant ever were, and it's a joy to traipse along with them through this twisty, smarty-pants adventure. Packed with lush locations, snazzy gizmos and gorgeous outfits, Duplicity proves again that writer-director Tony Gilroy is uncommonly skilled at latching together the pieces of classic Hollywood genres and coming up with something even better than what he started with.
If you're not sold yet, how's this: the opening credits happen over a slo-mo fistfight on a tarmac between Tom Wilkinson and Paul Giamatti. And before that, we've seen Roberts and Owen at a swank poolside party in Dubai, seducing one another and getting in bed before we even know who they are. This one-two punch of funny sexy and funny silly sets the tone for the entire film, which doles out pratfalls and double entendres with equal aplomb.
It takes nearly the entire movie to learn exactly who these four characters are, what they have to do with one another, and why two grown men beat each other up at an airport. And so much of the fun is in learning the particulars, in feeling lost in the narrative but then picked back up right where Gilroy intended, that I don't really want to tell you anything. But in the name of fairness in advertising (this is a review, after all), here we go. At the time of their brief Dubai encounter, Ray (Owen) was an MI-6 officer while Claire (Roberts) was a CIA agent who wanted her hands on some top-secret information he had hidden under his bed. What better way to get it than to sleep with him, drug him and slip out unnoticed?
Giamatti and Wilkinson, on the other hand, are civilians, each of them the head of a Colgate-Palmolive-type conglomerate that would do anything to get its hands on the other company's secrets. To do that they hire spies like Claire and Ray, both of whom have retired from government work when the movie takes place, five years after the Dubai incident. They're both working for the same company, though Claire is undercover as a mole with the rivals; both spies are frantically investigating a tip that says Wilkinson's king of industry character is about to announce a new product that will blow open the entire market.
The product is the MacGuffin, of course, an excuse to send Claire and Ray trotting all over the globe and squabbling-- or is that faux squabbling?-- all the way. For you see, Ray and Claire haven't seen each other in five years, since Dubai... or at least that's what we think at first. Through a series of nested flashbacks we slowly learn the truth, and Gilroy--but not necessarily Claire and Ray-- are ahead of us every step of the way. It becomes a thrill to get another flashback, to be thrown another piece of the puzzle, even when you think the whole thing's been solved.
The movie soars thanks to the chemistry between Roberts and Owen, but it's also stuffed with an excellent supporting cast, including Carrie Preston as a naive underling seduced by Ray (who wouldn't be?) and Denis O'Hare and Tom McCarthy as operatives on opposite sides of the enemy lines. Giamatti milks laughs from silly lines like "Show me the cream!" and while Wilkinson is on much slower burn than he was in his earlier film with Gilroy, Michael Clayton, he's sly and imposing as the CEO who believes he's got it all under control.
Despite ending on a perfectly zippy note, Duplicity stalls a little before its grand finale, when Claire and Ray get wrapped up in notions like love and commitment rather than continuing to distrust and double-cross one another. Maybe Gilroy wrote the scene before he saw how well Owen and Roberts would work together, and how clear Ray and Claire's real love for one another would be without spelling it out. In a movie packed with innuendo and telling silences, it's the only moment when all the cards seem laid flat on the table.
But one dull scene among two-plus hours of jazzy entertainment is nothing, especially given how fun and clever the rest of it is. Duplicity proves that a movie for grown-ups doesn't have to be dour, and perhaps as importantly, that Gilroy knows how to loosen his tie and use his prodigious talent on some of life's lighter themes. It's pretty much everything you could hope for from a Hollywood comedy, a bright burst of smarts a time of year when moviegoers need it most.