If you’re in the mood for an instant migraine, by all means go see DUPLICITY. In this, Director/writer Tony Gilroy takes the fractured timeline storytelling technique, which, with its flashbacks within flashbacks, worked so effectively in MICHAEL CLAYTON, and applies it to the romantic comedy genre, where it produces more fatigue than true delight.
It’s a lavishly produced, international caper in the tradition of CHARADE and THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR (with many steals from that film’s use of split screen by ace cinematographer Haskell Wexler), but all too soon, its torturouslly complex, too-clever-for-its-own-good plotting drains all of the romance and fun out of it. Gilroy’s heavy hand is apparent in the credits sequence, which goes on for an eternity, as two rival tycoons (Tom Wilkinson and Paul Giammati) have a screaming, knock-down fight on an airport tarmack, filmed in very slow motion. It’s cute in its over-the-top depiction of corporate rage for about half a minute but then goes on and on. The extravagantly ornate, bewildering exposition makes one rather long for the simple, fiendish cleverness of the opening sequence of the Ernst Lubitsch-produced, Frank Borzage-directed jewel thief caper, DESIRE (1936), which set things up in blissfully logical, yet pithy style.
Julia Roberts and Clive Owen play Claire Stenwick and Ray Koval, two corporate spies who keep meeting up over the years, alternately having hot sex and screwing each other over, business-wise. It’s telling, indeed, that in these cynical, career-obsessed modern times that such exhausting, nasty one-upmanship is, as it was in the even more mean-spirited MR. AND MRS. SMITH, the only romantic gambit Hollywood can seem to come up with. (Perhaps the current downward economic slide will restore a much-needed human element to movie relationships, and put A surcease on snarky irony in a way that even 9/11 could not do.) Watching Ray and Claire continually tease, bait and exploit one another soon becomes as anti-fun as Claudette Colbert’s “adorably” munching onions to stave off Gary Cooper’s amorous advances in that rare Lubitsch bummer, BLUEBEARD’S EIGHTH WIFE (1938), from the bad old Hays Code days when protecting one’s virginity was as important as a big payday is now.
Through all this relentless artifice, Owen manages to be more appealing than he’s ever been on screen before. His piercing baby-blues convey an unmistakably real desire for Roberts, even in the most trying of circumstances. Roberts is more problematic -At 41, one rather wishes that the yoke of “Hottest Young America’s Sweetheart Around” could be finally lifted from her shoulders.
No longer dewy fresh, that gigantic smile a tad shopworn these days, she’s as carefully made up – lacquered really – as Lana Turner was in her less attractive middle years, and a little more flesh on her bones and face would be more attractive, not to mention photogenic. She’s called upon to be incessantly knowing and perkily confident – and the added heartlessness makes this less than an irresistiblly alluring package. Costume designer Albert Wolsky has outfitted her with quiet good taste, and I wish a little more glitz had been thrown into the mix to make this the succulent concoction it strives to be. (Hepburn’s Givenchy elegance in CHARADE, and Faye Dunaway’s Mod Theodora Van Runkle ensembles in THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR certainly added to the fun of those films, and we won’t even go into Marlene Dietrich’s unbeatably glamorous Travis Banton wardrobe in DESIRE.)
Audrey Hepburn in Charade
Faye Dunaway in THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR
Roberts stops the aren’t-I-fierce posturing long enough to be quietly funny, as she seethes with jealous indignation, hearing the ecstatic confession of a duped underling who has been professionally seduced by Ray.
Those thick permisson lips thin with controlled anger as much as they posssibly can, as she listens to the gushing girl’s ravings, and that crack in the perfect superstar veneer offers that bit of realness audiences essentially need in their screen goddesses, however exalted and bankable. Her character’s surname, Stenwick, unavoidably evokes Stanwyck, a movie queen who was never above showing that earthy heart and soul audiences adored her for.
Barbara Stanwyck, a Movie Queen, Yes, but Always Real