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Duplicity Review

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by Casimir Harlow Aug 27, 2009 at 12:00 AM

    Duplicity Review
    On-screen chemistry between the two leads is essential for movies which seek to depict the start of a potentially fruitful relationship. Whilst it may not be as simple as that in real life - many may have come to believe that that overwhelming spark will have to give way to a more enduring love, or it may just fizzle out - you still need a spark at the beginning. Love may make the world go round, but chemistry - that spark - is what got the ball rolling in the first place. And whilst it is often easy to depict a strong relationship, years into a marriage, on celluloid, it can be harder to get that opening gambit right.


    First encounters, butterflies, lust, yearning, emotional and often chemical insanity. If it comes across that well on screen then there is probably a hint of it in real life - which may be the reason why so many celebrity couples meet whilst portraying romantically entwined characters in a movie. But as I said, chemistry isn't everything, which is why many of these couples then go on to meet their future mates after being paired successfully on-screen with another person.


    The big names are obvious - Brad Pitt: first Gwyneth Paltrow after Se7en, then Angelina Jolie after Mr & Mrs Smith, who had done the same thing herself with Jonny Lee Miller (after Hackers), Billy Bob Thornton (after Pushing Tin) and then Pitt on the set of Mr & Mrs Smith. Clearly these two have shared chemistry with quite a few co-stars. Cruise exhibited great on-screen chemistry with his striking red-headed ex in Far and Away and Days of Thunder - during their early, happier years together, then he found a new spark in Penelope Cruz over Vanilla Sky, and now Cruz has finally clicked with Javier Bardem (they met 15 years ago on Jamon, Jamon but didn't get together until they reunited for Vicky Christina Barcelona). It's like the circle of life.


    Not every one follows through with a relationship after sharing great on-screen chemistry, however, with George Clooney able to do it with many of his co-stars (no surprises there), most notably Jennifer Lopez for Out of Sight and Julia Roberts in Ocean's Eleven, and yet - ostensibly - get involved with neither in real life. Ditto for Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo in the sizzling caper remake The Thomas Crown Affair. It is important to stress the fundamental necessity for chemistry in these movies, for they surely would have failed utterly had the respective couples not clicked on-screen.


    Now, as much as I really rate Clive Owen as a quality actor (he would have made a great alternative Bond), unfortunately - in my opinion - he has very seldom sparked with his female co-stars on-screen. Perhaps this is just out of poor choices, perhaps it's because he's been in a happy relationship for fifteen years, but his characters' romances never really convince - whether it be Monica Bellucci, Naomi Watts, Keira Knightley or Rosario Dawson. It was only perhaps in Closer, with Julia Roberts, where he managed to show that they had something together - and even then this was perhaps due to the time-lapses between the key segments of the film which established their relationship at different points across the years. Now, reuniting for the romantic thriller Duplicity, will they be able to find some kind of je ne sais quoi, rekindle that spark, or is this merely another random big screen pairing?


    Howard Tully and Richard Garsik are two, almost indiscernibly ambitious corporate bigwigs, at war over money, power and beating each other to pull off the Next Big Thing for their respective companies. Adopting a plan involving corporate espionage, both companies employ ex-spies to win this money-fuelled competition, Garsik's special surveillance unit trying desperately to figure out what Tully's new release is going to be - and pre-emptively patent it to cash in on the subsequent vast riches that it has the potential to deliver. Meanwhile Tully's unit is set up to close any leaks, find out who may be selling out corporate information and keep Tully's new product under wraps until it can be legally bound.


    Ray Koval and Claire Stenwick are ex-MI:6 and ex-CIA respectively. Having both decided that things may be more lucrative in the private sector, Ray now heads up Garsik's corporate espionage unit, while Claire runs security for the competitors, although secretly she is the mole within his organisation. At odds themselves, they have met before - and not under better circumstances, a brief fling resulting in Claire drugging and stealing secrets from Ray - so when they find out they have to work together to bring down Tully's business neither of them appear to be too pleased.


    As the plan gets put into action, however, we learn - through flashback upon flashback - that the history between Ray and Claire is far more complicated than it at first seems. The two may just have a plan of their own; working with a mutual sense of distrust, a strange attraction for one another and attempting to play both of the big corporations against one another to cash in on the chaos that ensues.


    So who is going to win out? Garsik, the weasel-like CEO who needs to come up with a new product to keep his company afloat - so wants to steal from his competitor? Perhaps Tully, the competitor, an arrogant head honcho who simply wants to see Garsik destroyed? Or Ray and Claire, who still do not trust one another but want to steal the new idea themselves and sell it to the highest bidder? Honestly, who cares? You see, therein lies one of the biggest problems with this overlong, overly convoluted caper movie - how are audience members supposed to side with any of the protagonists if they are all just in it for the money, all lying, cheating and double-crossing one another?


    In a movie full of twists all we needed was a better reason to associate with any one of the characters - but that is the one twist that never comes - these guys are just in it for the money. They want to do over one another and become rich from it. This isn't Robin Hood, trying to steal from the rich to give to the poor. This is his adversary, the nasty Sheriff of Nottingham, stealing from another Sheriff - equally despicable - who himself is trying to do over Nottingham. Who cares who wins? And who cares who gets rich from it all?


    Written and Directed by Tony Gilroy, I expected so much more from Duplicity. The dust had barely settled over his Oscar-deserving George Clooney vehicle Michael Clayton, a top class modern classic that I was proud to review on Blu-ray, when I heard about him collaborating with the superb Clive Owen and the debatably engaging but nonetheless high profile Julia Roberts for a caper thriller about romantically-involved ex-spies. With these ingredients, how could it possibly go wrong?


    This was a corporate twist on the classy classic Thomas Crown Affair (whichever version you want to look at) and it had great potential. Unfortunately, right from the stylish slo-mo credits sequence it was clear that Gilroy got it all wrong - this very opening gambit setting a marginally comic tone that was never later touched upon, audiences from that point are subjected to a barrage of flash-backs and flash-forwards that continually forced them to re-think their opinions of the lead characters and their motivations. Whilst this is a good way of keeping people interested, keeping you guessing, there has to be a pay-off for all the twists, some kind of satisfactory resolution that ties it all up and makes the whole complicated, convoluted journey worth it. But instead it is a total anti-climax. This really is just about a bunch of money-hungry, amoral, mistrusting, untrustworthy rich people in-fighting and back-stabbing one another ad infinitum.


    Aside from the pointlessness of the whole affair - which is a pretty big aside - many movies have survived on chemistry alone. The likeable interaction between the two leads can be enough to sustain even the most lacklustre of stories. I remember seeing Feeling Minnesota over a decade ago and thinking exactly that - lame story, but a lot of chemistry between Reeves and Diaz, perhaps even enough to make you enjoy the whole package. And a caper movie like this? Well, it simply requires it. It needs to sizzle with chemistry - otherwise why would the two leads even bother engaging in the playful cat-and-mouse games that they do over the course of the movie?


    And between Clive Owen and Julia Roberts' characters - core elements of the romantic crime caper - there is simply nothing. Two acclaimed actors reading their lines, fitting into the shoes of their required roles, but never matching up between them. They seem like an odd pair from the outset, their initial fling inspired by absolutely zero spark, their later encounters also devoid of anything more than bitterness from Owen's character and ambivalence from Roberts'. The flashbacks do not help either - as it soon becomes apparent that some of the encounters were scripted by the two, some were planned and the ones that aren't are almost completely indiscernible from the genuine conversations. And are similarly totally devoid of any chemistry.


    These guys are totally convincing when it comes to acting like they hate one another, and make it abundantly clear on numerous occasions that they do not - and have good reason not to - trust one another, but when it comes to justifying some protracted, bi-yearly romantic meeting and then subsequent business partnership with a view to becoming rich, it becomes apparent that there is no reason why these two spend time together. There's no romance, no spark, no promise of a great future together, nor of even a lucrative work pairing either.


    Owen has had a good run of decent movie choices recently - ever since Children of Men proved that not stepping into Bond's shoes was a good decision - with The International also proving to be a solid old-school thriller in the same classic vein as Gilroy's Michael Clayton. Roberts rarely captured my attention - occasionally she makes for a noticeably pretty protagonist, but aside from a powerhouse performance in Erin Brokovich I have never rated her abilities - and her last few films have shown her appearing to just go through the motions to get another paycheque that is based entirely on her Pretty Woman days of fame. Put them together and you have to wonder how things went so wrong, as even actors who have been famous for not getting on together during a shoot (Mickey Rourke and Kim Basinger for 9 ½ weeks) have done a better job of showing a spark on screen. Perhaps they were just too good at being friends, and sexual chemistry was too alien to this setup, but whatever the reason - you cannot create something that simply is not there.


    They are not the only big names that make for wasted talent in this film either, with Tom Wilkinson (famous for his powerhouse supporting roles, he worked with Director Gilroy previously, and to great effect, on Michael Clayton) and Paul Giamatti (another engaging actor - at his best in Sideways, but who made a surprisingly decent villain opposite Clive Owen for the frivolous though fun actioner Shoot 'Em Up) playing the two vying CEOs. They spit and shout, bark orders at their minions, spout forth during presentations and constantly seek to destroy one another for seemingly no other reason than profit. They act like vicious parties in a nasty divorce battle, and it is very difficult to see who you are supposed to side with - if either. They round out a cast of four key characters who are simply all impossible to like or even associate with.


    Gilroy made a big mistake with this disappointing affair, setting the tone wrong, overplaying style over substance (the 24-esque split-screen gimmick is wearing pretty thin, particularly if used inappropriately), wasting far too many exotic locations through a lack of purpose, and similarly over-using the concept of non-linear storytelling. Flashbacks can work well to develop characters, offer background and explain their subsequent actions, and can often make for keen twists in the narrative, but after half a dozen flashbacks within the first hour you start to get bored of trying to put it all into place. The convoluted, overly-complicated style is fine in a movie where there is some significance to it all - where the characters are in real threat (of something more than just not getting rich), where the battle is for more than just a patent on a new product, for more than just the millions that these multinational corporations pull in. Here you don't care, so keeping up with all the flashbacks - and the significance they have - just becomes tedious. And ultimately, once you get to the end, you realise that it was pretty pointless bothering to follow it all.


    Perhaps the lesson that the filmmakers were going for with this production was that - in big business you can't root for the good guys because there are no good guys - just nasty, greedy fat-cats preying on one another. Well, with a runtime of over two hours, you can't help but feel the point is hammered home in a protractedly long and overstated way, and similarly cannot help but think that the whole thing has been a waste of time. Utterly disappointing.