“We’re not like other people,” Claire Stenwick (Julia Roberts) tearfully announces to Ray Koval (Clive Owen). “Only you could understand me.” No, these characters aren’t supernatural or extra-terrestrial; they’re spies for the CIA and MI-6, respectively—fed up with their empty lives of artifice and loneliness. After a one-night stand in Dubai and a week of lovemaking in Rome two years later, they decide that they belong together and hatch an escape plan. All they need in the world is each other and a cool $40 million to finance their tastes in Italian hotels, beachfront villas, and flowing Moet.
But this romantically simple end begets a series of complicated means as the two spies become increasingly entangled in the world of corporate espionage and counter-intelligence. Written and directed by Tony Gilroy, the writer behind the wildly successful “Bourne” trilogy, “Duplicity” delves into the grimy underbelly of the fierce competition between two rival pharmaceutical companies who hire Claire and Ray to pawn top-secret technological breakthroughs undercover.
They’re going to con both companies. “You on one side, me on the other,” Claire schemes. “It’s perfect.” To ensure their future together, they devise a complex plan involving multiple passports and secret meetings, all meticulously thought-out and cleverly executed.
In “Duplicity,” Gilroy ambitiously attempts to transcend the stereotypical spy thriller with a thoughtful minimalism that made his directorial debut “Michael Clayton,” so successful. He employs frequent flashbacks and chronological re-orderings that lend the film an enticing suspense. But unlike “Michael Clayton,” this film fails to address any of the moral or ethical dilemmas implicit in a plot involving spies, treachery, and corporate litigation—even after five mentally exhausting plot twists.
Gilroy uses the same intelligent crime thriller formula as his “Bourne” trilogy, but “Duplicity” relies on neither car chases nor intricate fight scenes to provide its thrills. Instead it depends on countless moments of shocking deceptions. After the spies’ initial hook-up in Dubai, Claire drugs Ray and steals some top-secret Egyptian military codes. Despite the lack of careful choreography, high-tech gear, and explosions, Gilroy succeeds here in creating a high-stakes atmosphere of suspense and double-dealing.
But although the plot twists are almost as absorbing as those found in “Bourne,” “Duplicity” has none of its novelty or conviction. While “Bourne” carefully develops layer upon layer of the protagonist’s character, “Duplicity” banks on the overdone spy archetype and a few flimsy love scenes to validate its guileful plot.
The audience is supposed to assume that as spies, Claire and Ray jet glamorously around the world wearing stilettos and aviators but suffer internally from the effects of their constant double-dealing. Oftentimes they struggle to maintain faith even in each other. “Admit it,” Claire muses after testing Ray’s fidelity by planting her black lacy thong in his apartment. “You don’t trust me either.” The audience never really glimpses more than their spy-persona veneers, barring their love for each other—which is the only aspect of their characters that seems even remotely human or relatable. Their supposedly unique, passionate love is billed as the justification for all their scheming, but their lackluster pairing is too implausible to substantiate that claim.
While Claire and Ray’s love story spans five years and three continents, their few romantic scenes together fizzle. Both Owen and Roberts are sex icons in their own right, even if the latter seems slightly miscast as a young, seductive globetrotter. But if the audience is to believe that the goal of all their missions is really to overcome the complications of life undercover that keep Owens’ sexy British accent and Roberts’ ample post-pregnancy cleavage apart, then their on-screen chemistry had better sizzle—or at least feel tangible.
The layers of intrigue and double-crossing in “Duplicity” are undoubtedly clever and thrilling—at first. But if Claire and Ray barely trust each other, can the viewer trust either of them? After the audience has been duped for the third, fourth, fifth, time, what’s the point? Gilroy has once again flexed his directorial skill and attention to detail, but this fails to compensate for the film’s lack of character development and moral complexity.