With "Duplicity," the infamous sophomore slump hits writer-director Tony Gilroy (2007's "Michael Clayton
") with the force of a giant meteorite barreling below the surface of the planet and making contact with the earth's crust. A caper without intrigue and a romance without humanity, this disastrously wasteful star vehicle manages quite the feat by both crushing the viewer's soul and devouring their spirit in two hours flat. The "too-cool-for-school" stylizationswatch out for zooming split screensmight work to compliment better material, but here its only purpose is to try and create a distraction from the picture's gross superficiality. If that weren't enough, the glacial pacing and utterly insufferable stick figure characters put up quite an argument for the preferable entertainment value of watching paint dry.
In editing the project, Tony Gilroy has seemingly thrown the scenes up in the air and cut them together whichever way they've landed. How else to explain the disjointed narratives race through time, moving back and forth courtesy of intertitles that read "Five Years Later," "Two Years Ago," "Eighteen Months Ago," "Three Months Ago," "Twelve Hours Later," etc.? There's more time travel on display than in the "Back to the Future" trilogy, and it serves no detectable purpose other than to frustrate audiences who have no way of emotionally connecting to anything on the screen. As is, the plot initially appears complex verging on inscrutable. Put it in chronological order, however, and what you have is an embarrassingly empty and decidedly ridiculous story that ostensibly boils down to CIA agent Claire Stenwick (Julia Roberts) and MI6 operative Ray Koval (Clive Owen) battling wits and double-crossing each other as they, apparently, fall in love. Their ultimate goal is to steal the formula for a not-yet-announced shampoo product that restores life to dead hair follicles and make a mint off of it. Seriously.
It doesn't take but a minute for Julia Roberts (2007's "Charlie Wilson's War
") to show off her irresistible mega-watt smile in the opening scene of "Duplicity." Before the halfway point, she and dashing co-star Clive Owen (2009's "The International
") will be stripped of all the charm that these two movie stars possess. Playing rotten, lying, thieving individuals is fine and dandy, but when a movie's romantic leads are all of the above and free of a single non-physical attribute in sight, how is one supposed to care at all about them or their relationship? Claire and Ray do not resemble real people, but ruinous, one-note screenplay constructs who have no backgrounds, no family, and seemingly no life outside of what is seen on the screen. Their actions are deplorable, their ruthless dishonesty is tedious, and their roles are defined merely by slick, shallow affectations. The potential chemistry between Roberts and Owen, spending less time together in front of the camera than expected, is declared null and void by Claire's and Ray's sheer unpleasantness. Watching them interact is like watching two hostile alien races attempt to communicate. There isn't an ounce of gravitas
or electricity between them.
Pawns in a really, really awful game of Chess, Julia Roberts and Clive Owen (along with the throwaway participation of Paul Giamatti and Tom Wilkinson as feuding corporation heads) must contend with a nightmare of storytelling as perfunctory and depthless as their characters. Writer-director Tony Gilroy is so in love with ogling Roberts' cleavage and Owen's smoldering glances that he has forgotten to put anything behind it. He hardly has time to reveal the plot by the one-hour mark, and then when it is revealed and motives are sorted out it comes as a preposterous anticlimax. Overflowing with boring dialogue, uninformed exposition, and a single suspense scene that has all the tension of drifting peacefully to sleep, the film sinks further into oblivion the longer it plays out. Even the attractive exotic locations, from the Atlantis resort in the Bahamas, to Dubai, to Rome, to New York City, are squandered to a shockingly forgetful photographic degree. When Gilroy isn't striving for obnoxious aesthetics (i.e. a slow-motion opening credits fight between Giamatti and Wilkinson), cinematographer Robert Elswit (2007's "There Will Be Blood
") is suffocated by the filmmaker's stagnant, scope-deficient demands.
There are plenty of bad motion pictures, and then there are bad
motion pictures. "Duplicity" fits snugly in the latter, more rare category, a big-budget, big-studio endurance test that is downright painful to withstand. Claire and Ray, as believably intimate as a feuding brother and sister, receive something of a well-deserved comeuppance by the end, but in delivering this last-scene afterthought posing as a twist, the film is rendered even more pointless than it already had been. Add in nonsensical editing, an asinine premise, laughless attempts at humor, stilted dialogue, and an overall smarmy, distasteful undercurrent to its bag of miserable insensitivity, and what is left is a crater where a film should be. "Duplicity" goes so wrong in so many ways that it is beyond repair.