Julia Roberts and Clive Owen are reunited for the first time since Closer, but far from being a messed up couple in high society they’re… well, they’re a messed up couple again. But this time they’re secret agents, which is much cooler. Plus Duplicity isn’t based on a play, so more stuff happens.
The story begins in the 70s, or at least in the indiscriminate late 20th century. Ray Koval (Owen) spots a beautiful-ish woman with a large mouth and scrawny legs from across the room. It’s Claire Stenwick (Julia Roberts). Despite a few awkward ‘lines’ he gets her up to his room. The problem is, it seems she planned it all along as he wakes up from his drug-induced slumber to find his room turned upside and Claire vanished. We then cut to the present, and Ray is now doing private work for a soap company and, you guessed it, Claire turns up there too.
What ensues is a mixture of between a kind of whodunnit thriller, a romance control and an affable comedy. (Think Mr. and Mrs. Smith but less vacuous, with less attractive stars, and less comedy scenes.) These elements are balanced really well, with the humour providing some nice touches to what could otherwise be a poorly judged spy thriller. Adding these playful elements makes the espionage puzzle and the story of two emotionally damaged lovers far less heavy and so much more enjoyable. What’s more, the complex web of deceit that the two characters build around each other professionally and personally is a great way of keeping us on the edge of our seats with every aspect of the plot. You’re left guessing for quite a long time as to the next plot twist, the next gag and the next time you’ll see who comes out on top in the endless stream of mind games the two combatants engage in.
Strangely, Closer actually provided some great prep for the emotional side of the role. The unsettling combination of complacent deceit and unstable commitments gives these two characters a depth that is so frequently lacking in these concept dramedies, and even more so in spy thrillers. The chemistry between Roberts and Owen is brilliant and they really pull off the warped way that the pair of spies get off on their mind games. Tom Wilkinson and Paul Giamatti are equally praiseworthy as the chief executives of the soap companies being investigated. From an amusing slow motion airport fight scene to moments of rage they cover the perfect credibility.
For all this praise though, there is one flaw. The ending. I’m not going to spoil it, but with such a good build-up the final twist doesn’t quite cut it. It seems a little too lazy, a bit too convenient, and it doesn’t quite provide the payoff the rest of the movie deserves.
Overall though, it’s a good fun guessing game with enough action and quirks to fill its two hours comfortably. It’s the kind of stuff that plays to the strengths of Clive Owen and Julia Roberts and, if we’re lucky, it might keep Owen away from mediocre action movies and ludicrous talk of his Bond potential.