2009-03-20 (General release)

It’s pretty people versus ugly people. Guess who wins?

Duplicity boasts stars, exotic locations, and a timely, likely popular plotline in which rapacious corporate suits get a sort of comeuppance. But for all its bright banter and flashbacky fanciness, the movie boils down to this rudimentary formula: morality and success are functions of beauty. Again.

It’ not like it pretends to be anything else. Written and directed by Tony Gilroy, Duplicity is well aware of its legacy and limits. It opens in Dubai, 2003, where gorgeous CIA officer Claire (Julia Roberts) is gracing a posh Fourth of July party at the American Embassy. Spotted by MI6 agent Ray (Clive Owen), she’s coy and condescending, wondering out loud at the clumsiness of his flirtation (“I thought we were checking each other out”). Minutes later, he’s knocked out in his hotel room and she’s rifling through his belongings while slipping on her dress. Mission accomplished. Apparently.

Cut to the less lovely bodies, namely, Howard Tully (Tom Wilkinson) and Dick Garsik (Paul Giamatti). Executive mucky mucks at war with one another, they appear under Duplicity‘s opening credits on a tarmac, each backed by a mini-army of sycophants, both meeting nose to nose between their private planes and limos. Rain and wind whip at their trousers as they begin to argue — in slow motion and without sound, their faces contorted, their arms flailing, their argument apparently dire but also, inconsequential. Generically mean and greedy, they’re less characters than caricatures, outsized and sputtering and knocking each other around. As they stumble and grimace, their on-the-clock minions rushing too late to part them — still in slow motion — you feel a little underwhelmed. Yes, they’re the villains. Next?

Tully and Garsik know who they are, but here their very certainty makes them targets, easy and lugubrious. The film favors the relatively ambiguous and ethically nimble spies, reintroduced five years later in New York. Ray’s on another assignment — now dropped out of government work and retained by a mega-company. While he’s gliding along Manhattan sidewalks outfitted with high tech surveillance gear, he spots Claire — seemingly accidentally. When he catches up to her, they engage in a bit of dialogue they will then repeat in mild variations multiple times, wherein he complains that she cheated him and she pretends not to know him. Neither trusts the other and both are too slick and smart to be duped more than once. And so they do what the two prettiest people in any movie do: they fall in love. Sort of.

As its title announces, Duplicity concerns the deceits and betrayals that make up relationships, whether romantic, financial, or philosophical. The gimmick here (as in the bloodier and more satisfyingly perverse Mr. & Mrs. Smith), is that the partners, for all their seeming chemistry and mutual attraction, can’t trust one another, being professional liars and all. In order to reassure one another that their professions of love are real, maybe, they agree to crook the house, that is, put their considerable skills to use in a heist that will leave them set up for a lifetime of Roman holidays, to the tune of $40 million.

The film doesn’t show much of what apparently drives them, that is, sex. With their interludes left to your imagination (a hotel employee calls them “John and Yoko”), they’re fashioned as a vintage type of fast-talking couple, like Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, or Grant and Hepburn, even Grant and Eva Marie Saint used to play. They’re charming and smart and cynical, self-aware and articulate, they share a business vernacular and in-group ethics. “Is that what makes this so worth it,” Claire wonders, “that I know you’re thinking exactly what I’m thinking? Civilians don’t think like that.” Ray’s less convinced of their specialness: “Bullshit,” he says, “Nobody trusts anyone.” It’s just that spies play for higher stakes — and can afford sleek designer outfits. As they manipulate their marks or appear occasionally to be losing control of the scheme, they remain focused on one another’s potential betrayals (she’s especially bothered when he engages in desk-sex with a too-easily seduced travel coordinator [Carrie Preston], his mission captured by surveillance cameras, his face turned up to the lens, underlining his intention to get some vaguely defined payback for Dubai).

The mostly standard heist plot gets some jazz from the film’s formal structure, which has Claire and Ray cutting back and forth in time, meeting and remeeting, repeating bits of dialogue, performing their dance of distrust in London, Miami, and finally, Cleveland. No matter the location or the moment, they remain irresistibly drawn to one another and at least nominally uncommitted. Sleek and inconsequential, their affair leads where you know it will.

RATING 5 / 10