Watching the romantic caper Duplicity is rather like listening to someone tell a very long, very complicated joke – you just have to sit there with one of those exhausting rictus smiles, hoping that you'll be able to laugh at the end and not embarrass yourself or your entertainer.
Very seldom does the quality of the joke merit the facial effort expended. Now, imagine doing it for a whole movie. By the end I thought I had lockjaw.
Tony Gilroy knows how to make one sort of movie work – he scored hits with the Bourne films and directed his own script for Michael Clayton – and he has two top-drawer performers in Julia Roberts and Clive Owen, reuniting for the first time since Closer. Julia's a one-time CIA officer, Clive's an ex-MI6 agent, who meet cute at a Dubai pool party. They end up in bed, though by morning she's drugged him and made off with a vital dossier he had in his room. Fast forward five years and they collide again, this time as players in a big corporate scam. One CEO (Tom Wilkinson) has been developing a top-secret "product", which another CEO (Paul Giamatti) wants to steal and claim the patent for himself. Welcome to the world of industrial espionage.
Gilroy is playing a double game of double-dealing here. Julia and Clive have kept their romantic attachment a secret from their team so they can run their own private scam. But, the hot bedroom action notwithstanding, they don't trust each other as partners, and the film keeps shuttling back and forth in time to reveal just how sneaky these two gamesters can be. Unfortunately for us, the game just isn't that much fun. When Newman and Redford were working their long con in The Sting we could at least enjoy their skill as swindlers, not to mention the sense of danger from the big shot they were trying to take down. What's at stake in Duplicity? Well, they talk about a patent on hand cream (or is it lotion?), and later about a flaky-crust pizza. At one dramatic crux there's a shot of a photocopier and some heated backroom argument about a mystery shampoo they all want a piece of. I was not on the edge of my seat.
Instead of menace, we are offered glamour, in the shape of de luxe hotels around the world: Rome, London, New York, Miami, Zurich. It's all very International Traveller, and in these straitened times a small dose of luxe is perhaps no bad thing. No one, however, will mistake it for an exciting one. The two leads try to raise the tempo with some droll backchat and a frisson of erotic challenge. I liked the scene in which Roberts confronts Owen with a lacy thong she's found in his bedroom wardrobe. His protestation of innocence is nicely done: "The only woman who's been in this apartment before you was my landlady. And she couldn't wear that as a wristband."
In fact, the two leads are fine together, her natural warmth a foil to his sardonic charm, and Gilroy writes them some snappy scenes. But the doubts over their real feelings for one another aren't a strong enough frame on which to hang suspense. As for the corporate skulduggery, you may be fooled by the twist, and then instantly wonder why anyone should care.