Deconstruction of Hollywood archetypes or glorification of cinema as complete artificiality? Tony Gilroy’s breakneck spy comedy Duplicity has elements of both, reveling in Julia Roberts and Clive Owen’s star personas only to pull the rug out from under their rouse with one last twist of disturbing comeuppance. The film continuously uses flashy dialogue and flashbacks to mask its one-dimensional characters as they traverse a combustible and unflinching corporate space, forcing a sense of simple confusion and debauchery on the entire proceedings. It’s a stark grey world of perception, manipulation, and expectation, where everyone is culpable no matter their pay grade or ambivalence.
Duplicity contains an intrinsic charm, as Roberts and Owen share a wonderful sense of chemistry and timing. But Gilroy’s rehashing of themes from Michael Clayton (greed, corporate treachery) feel tired and out of place within this specific mixture of tones, even as he skewers some truly deserving targets and avoids any resemblance of a happy ending. Most problematic is how stylistically Duplicity treads heavily into Steven Soderbergh territory, from the extensive use of steady-cam tracking shots down to the romantic sprinkles of background light. Some scenes in particular seem to be plucked directly from Out of Sight and the Ocean’s Trilogy.
Tony Gilroy is an obviously talented writer, but wears certain thematic obsessions too clearly on his sleeve, leaving little for the audience to discover or feel even as these films brilliantly flutter off the screen. Duplicity cleverly plays with our expectations about narrative convention and genre, but in the end, its confidence game lacks any lasting substance and depth.
Mike Nichols’ problematic and exciting treatment of Congressman Charles Wilson, who single handily helped fund the Afghan Mujahideen against the invading Russians in the 1980’s, is the kind of historical revisionism Hollywood loves – heavy on dramatic weight and light on History. But the film has an energy (mainly due to the first rate performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman as a smarmy and dedicated C.I.A. agent) that’s hard to deny, even when the screenplay and direction seem overt and preachy. Hoffman and Tom Hanks (as Wilson) share a haunting final scene where the disgruntled spy tells the big wig politician of the impending extremism rising up in Afghanistan. The writing of terrorism is on the wall, but the American Government seems too busy celebrating its momentary victory to foresee the horrors to come.