Honore De Balzac said, “A flow of words is a sure sign of duplicity” – which may explain why CIA officer Claire Stenwick (Julia Roberts) and MI6 agent Ray Koval (Clive Owen) are never at a loss when forced to explain their unpredictably bizarre behavior in this sexy, sophisticated spy caper.
In the opening scene, for example, at a gala Fourth of July party in 2003 at Dubai’s US Consulate, Ray makes a charming play for Claire. She seductively parries with clever quips – yet, before long, they’ve tumbled into bed. Claire awakens first and deftly steals Ray’s top-secret documents. She’s a professional, he’s her target and exit strategies are her specialty. A few years later, the tables are turned when Claire ostensibly goes to work as a security expert for Burkett-Randel’s titan-of-industry Howard Tully (Tom Wilkinson) and Ray is covertly hired as her ‘handler.’ At the same time, rival Equikrom’s CEO Dick Garsik (Paul Giamatti) is set to pull off a consumer coup of global proportions, a scheme which also involves Claire and Ray.
What complicates matters is chemistry: Claire and Ray are irresistibly attracted to each another but, because trust is never part of the equation, they constantly “game” each other with playful misdirection since they’re competitive spirits, consummate deceivers and lovers of larceny.
Writer/director Tony Gilroy’s (“Michael Clayton”) topical timing is perfect since – on one level – this romantic thriller is sheer escapist entertainment while – on another – it’s an observant commentary on contemporary corporate espionage. Problem is: with its constantly shifting timelines, the carefully calculated plot is extremely devious and convoluted. While it eventually makes sense, the ultimate con is difficult, even frustrating to follow as it evolves on the screen.
As previously evidenced in “Closer,” Roberts and Owen work superbly together; they’re friends and their easy camaraderie is obvious. Humor abounds, particularly when Claire’s questioning a travel agent whom Ray seduced and when Ray’s posing as a bumbling American who enjoys appletinis. On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Duplicity” is a slick 7 – it’s sneaky, snarky fun, a devilish double-cross.