If one of David Mamet’s puzzle movies (“House of Games,” say) were refashioned as a slick Hollywood vehicle for a big star—and, unfortunately, dumbed down in the process—it would look something like “Duplicity.” Tony Gilroy’s follow-up to “Michael Clayton” is even more labyrinthine, but the attempt to replace its predecessor’s intensity with old-fashioned panache doesn’t come off. In this case the chronologically convoluted plot winds up not taking us very far. It wants to be a modern-day version of “The Sting,” but there’s a real question about whether it’s the audience that gets stung in the end.
Gilroy’s script begins with a “Spy Vs. Spy” encounter between CIA operative Claire Stenwick (Julia Roberts) and MI6 spook Ray Koval (Clive Owen) in Dubai in 2003, where he’s outmaneuvered—and humiliated—by her. Five years later, they run into another again, this time in Grand Central Station. He’s now on the corporate spy staff of Omnikrom, a cosmetics firm headed by Dick Garsik (Paul Giamatti), and she on that of rival firm Burkett & Randle, helmed by Howard Tully (Tom Wilkinson). But she’s actually a mole for Omnikrom, turning over super-sensitive info on a project Tully has in the works that will revolutionize the industry. Garsik, who despises Tully, wants to steal the project to outmaneuver his hated rival and make himself supreme in the business.
That’s just the opening salvo in a twisty tale in which nobody and nothing are what they seem. It wouldn’t be fair to reveal too much about the plot turns, but it’s certainly true that you’ll need to be on your toes to keep track of them, since Gilroy repeatedly shifts the chronology to explain, by the gradual doling out of information, what’s actually going on. Since everybody is acting out his own agenda, often at cross-purposes, you can never tell who’s lying and who’s pretending, but the pieces connect satisfactorily in the end. The problem is that the final twist isn’t particularly gratifying. You leave feeling as cheated as some of the characters—though I won’t say which.
There’s one other major element to “Duplicity,” and that’s an obligatory romance between Stenwick and Koval. The problem here is that though it isn’t for lack of trying, sparks do not fly between Roberts and Owen. They’re both attractive people, but the combination never really takes off, and so one has to contend oneself with appreciating her brittle efficiency and his more volatile suavity individually. While that’s not difficult, it isn’t terribly enjoyable, either. Nor is watching Wilkinson and Giamatti overdo the greedy captains of business. Both are fine actors, but they’re misused here from the very first scene, when they get into a fight on an airport tarmac. Gilroy encouraged Wilkinson to go too far in “Clayton,” too (even though he received an Oscar nomination for it), and Giamatti has always needed reining in to do his best work—something Gilroy doesn’t provide for any of the cast (including Tom McCarthy, as Claire’s confederate, who did much better work as writer-director of “The Station Agent” and “The Visitor” than he does onscreen here).
Still, Gilroy stitches the plot threads together effectively, and while his touch with the actors isn’t particularly sure, he manages the action smoothly, working with production designer Kevin Thompson, cinematographer Robert Elswit and editor John Gilroy to give the picture an impressive look in sumptuous multinational locations and an assured feel in which even the use of split screens is well handled. The piece de resistance is a sequence in which Claire rushes through an office building trying to find a copier that will transmit an important document to Omnikrom, while Ray not only barks instructions to her over the phone but tries to get a copy of the paper for himself. James Newton Howard’s score, however, has an anonymous quality.
Unlike many of today’s splashy star pictures, “Duplicity” isn’t actually unpleasant to watch. But though it has more tricks up its sleeve than you can count, in the end all the sleight of hand amounts to disappointingly little fun.