Julia Roberts and Clive Owen in the stylish but muddled Duplicity.

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March 19 2009 10:42 AM

Pretty Confusing

Julia Roberts and Clive Owen in the stylish but muddled Duplicity.

After you've seen Duplicity, come back and listen to our Spoiler Special discussion of all the twists and turns:

You can also click here to download the MP3 file, or you'll find this and dozens of other Spoiler Specials in our iTunes podcast feed here.

Ex-CIA officer Claire Stenwick (JULIA ROBERTS) and former MI6 agent Ray Koval (CLIVE OWEN). Click image to expand.
Julia Roberts and Clive Owen in Duplicity 

Duplicity (Universal Pictures), the second film from Michael Clayton director and Bourne trilogy screenwriter Tony Gilroy, couldn't look and sound better, with its lush cinematography by Robert Elswit (There Will Be Blood) and its witty retro-Hitchcock-ian score by James Newton Howard (The Dark Knight). It's got Clive Owen and Julia Roberts, two actors who radiate old-fashioned Hollywood star power, exchanging clever and well-crafted dialogue in posh far-flung locations. Duplicity is also stuffed with smaller-scale pleasures, including a knockout credit sequence in which Paul Giamatti and Tom Wilkinson wrestle in slow motion on an airport runway. But shouldn't even a film constructed around a labyrinthine espionage plot have to make actual narrative sense?

Dana Stevens Dana Stevens

Dana Stevens is Slate's movie critic.

To be fair, I guess if Gilroy were to sit down and outline the entire movie on a flow chart or watch it with me on DVD while pausing for on-demand Q&A sessions, I could puzzle out those details of the story that remain murky. But is it too much to ask that a spy movie unravel its secrets, at least the explicitly plot-bound ones, on a single viewing?

To illustrate my point while sidestepping spoilers, let me set up one of the movie's most striking early twists. Roberts plays Claire Stenwick (a character name that inevitably invokes screwball-comedy goddess Barbara Stanwyck), an undercover CIA agent in Dubai. Owen is Ray Koval, an MI6 operative who picks her up at a party in 2003. After they sleep together, Claire proceeds to drug Ray and steal a top-secret envelope from his hotel room (something involving Egyptian military codes).

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Five years later, in the present day, both Claire and Ray have left their government jobs for lucrative corporate-spy positions in New York. They meet again at a drop arranged by their employer, a top pharmaceutical company trying to steal the secrets of its competitor. Their encounter culminates in a bizarre exchange in which we realize that either Claire has completely forgotten who Ray is, or she's pretending to.

Cut to Rome, two years earlier: Ray is suavely sipping a cappuccino outside the Pantheon when he sees Claire walk by (in the Platonic ideal of a summer dress, which half the female audience will be searching for on Google next week). He chases her down a side street, corners her … and they proceed to have the exact same conversation, word for word, that we just saw them have at the Lord & Taylor perfume counter in New York.

That two-minute scrap of dialogue, repeated verbatim in two different places and times within the first 15 minutes of the movie, creates an alienation effect on the audience that's vertiginous and thrilling. Why are these two spies repeating a seemingly private conversation years apart in different cities? Have they rehearsed it? Are they being recorded? Who's gaming whom? My first reaction on recognizing the repeated lines was one of willing viewer masochism: Oh yeah, Tony Gilroy, mess with my head some more! But—and here's where I need Gilroy on my couch with a DVD remote in his hand—the movie never does reveal, at least not with enough precision to be truly satisfying, just what Claire and Ray's prefab conversation (which will recur at intervals throughout the movie) is all about.

That's not the only way in which Duplicity disappoints, just one of the few that can be described without major spoilage. There are so many leaps back and forth in time, so many twists and countertwists and double fake-outs, that we keep losing track of who (including ourselves) is supposed to know what when. There's a kind of pleasure in this repeated experience of bewilderment, but it's a pleasure predicated on the assumption that all the puzzle pieces will click together in the end. Duplicity does end with a whopper of a twist, but it's not clear how that revelation affects everything that came before. The conversation on the way home from a movie like this should consist of triumphant "aha!"s, not bumbling "wha?"s.

But romantic thrillers do not live by twists alone: They need romance, and on that front, Duplicity delivers quite nicely. Roberts isn't my particular cup of tea as an actress—she's too reliant on tics, and her famous smile has come to constitute a kind of brand logo. Still, her on-screen charisma is as undeniable as the heat of the sun, and you don't need to be a Pretty Woman fan to get why Ray would chase her through that Roman piazza. Owen is perfectly in his element as the Champagne-swilling, amoral, yet sincerely love-struck Ray; in an era less obsessed with deconstructing its own icons, he would have made a sensational James Bond. Gilroy explores the spies-in-love conceit with a trace more emotional sophistication than your average espionage thriller. Ray and Claire's wary, adversarial passion becomes a metaphor for relationships in general; we may not all be involved in international con games with our sweethearts, but everyone's had the experience of not knowing whom, and how far, to trust.

In a way, Duplicity plays as a less-successful comic remake of Michael Clayton. Both films share themes of corporate corruption and personal betrayal, protagonists who are tricksters and idealists in equal measure, and fantastic supporting turns by Tom Wilkinson. In Michael Clayton, Wilkinson's manic-depressive lawyer was the lone voice in the wilderness protesting the corporate abuse of power. Here, he's the most ruthless capitalist in sight, coolly tending a single bonsai tree from behind his vast stone slab of a desk. Paul Giamatti is also genially unhinged as Wilkinson's competitor in the race to find … but I couldn't possibly reveal the pharmaceutical MacGuffin that's the object of Wilkinson and Giamatti's cold war. Its unveiling is one of Duplicity's cleverest and best-timed jokes, and one of the few opportunities this stylish but muddled movie affords to shout out a satisfying, "Ah, of course!"