A little over 30 minutes into Duplicity (2009), Ray Koval (Clive Owen) and Claire Stenwick (Julia Roberts), if those are their real names, agents, respectively, for MI6 and the CIA, have just spent three carefree days in a Rome resort filled with lovemaking and room service. You know, how most of us spend our Labor Day weekends. They are laying in bed. Romantic flamenco guitar lilts on the soundtrack. But then……
Claire realizes she has missed her wakeup call. She’s supposed to be in Geneva. So what? wonders Ray. He was supposed to be in Cairo two days ago. “You told me London,” exclaims Claire. “The point is I blew it off,” replies Ray. She wants to be sure no one called. He points out she was in the room. She points out she’s a heavy sleeper. Back and forth they go. Parry and riposte. He’s convinced she’s playing him. She’s convinced he’s playing her.
It turns again. Claire says: “I’m thinking how terrible it is that I think that way. Then I realize we both think that way. Then I’m thinking, is that what makes this so worth it?” Maybe it is. Maybe, they wonder, if they team up they can acquire, say, a cool $40 million and live like it’s a three day weekend in Rome seven days a week every week.
Really, though? Is that REALLY what they want most? Because later there is another scene in another scenic hotel (this time in Miami) where Ray explains he has placed himself in the midst of a war between two companies and this might be their play for the scheme of a lifetime only to then have Claire explains she has placed herself in the midst of a war between two different companies and that this might be their play for the scheme of a lifetime. They will both have to follow through, to not look suspicious and to ferret out which one is better. They sit down in front of a wide open vista of clear blue water. “This is what we wanted,” says Claire. Of course, she’s not talking about the hotel and the wide open vista of clear blue water.
Essentially every scene Ray and Claire share ends in or at the very least contains an argument. Later when they meet up in The Cleve (Duplicity really globe trots) Claire calls Ray out for having a pair of, ahem, womanly panties that are so obviously not hers. Of course, they actually are hers, because she was just testing Ray. “You still don’t trust me,” says Ray. Ray must say “You still don’t trust me” at least 266 times in this movie.
Tony Gilroy, writer/director of Duplicity, adores mind games. In The Bourne Identity, which he wrote, a man pulled from the sea finds he has an account number to a safety deposit box in Zurich (huh?), is fluent in German (er…) and can kung-fu anyone to death (what the what?). Michael Clayton, which he wrote and directed, opens with Michael Clayton’s car blowing up as he stops to say hi to some horses and then rewinds (sort of) and unfolds as a non-linear jigsaw puzzle with so many pieces only Gilroy himself seems able to see how they all go together. And Duplicity might be his twistiest work thus far, a film stacked with switchbacks.
My first time with it I confess I had nowhere near a full grasp of all that was happening and who exactly was who and so on and so forth. I could not have cared less. Others, however, did not share this mindset. “But shouldn’t even a film constructed around a labyrinthine espionage plot have to make actual narrative sense?” Slate’s film critic Dana Stevens asked. “(I)s it too much to ask that a spy movie unravel its secrets, at least the explicitly plot-bound ones, on a single viewing?” Perhaps it isn’t too much ask, perhaps it is, and though I can attest the movie makes more narrative sense on its second and third viewings I fear focusing on logistics with Duplicity can potentially undermine its sheer entertainment.
Everyone in Duplicity gets off on mind games. The Presidents, played brilliantly and comically by Paul Giamatti and Tom Wilkinson, of the two corporations for whom Ray and Claire go to work, do not enjoy earning their millions and billions of bucks as much as they enjoy engaging one another in mind games. Ray gets off on mind games. Claire gets off on mind games. And so their relationship is not so much about the result of the con as it is about the con itself. In the end, Duplicity is not so much about goverment espionage as emotional espionage. It’s a rom com with leads who prefer lies to truth, most especially if their (loosely defined) significant other is the one doing the lying.
In the last scene, when the con has not, for reasons I will not reveal, gone precisely as intended, Ray opines “At least we have each other.” To which Claire replies: “It’s really that bad, isn’t it?”
DID YOU LIKE “DUPLICITY”?