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Confessions Of A Cinema Junkie: The Art Of Reversals, The Caper Film and Something Like A Comedy Of Manners In Tony Gilroy’s ‘Duplicity’
Cinema Junkie   |  

“It’s called a confidence game. Why? Because you give me your confidence? No. Because I give you mine.”
— Mike from House Of Games

“Well, maybe I don’t! I had ten good years with Cole, and I want them back! I gotta have a partner! I looked and I looked and believe me, brother, I kissed a lot of fucking frogs, and you’re my prince!”
— Myra Langtry from The Grifters

“It’s like seeing someone for the first time, and you look at each other for a few seconds, and there’s this kind of recognition like you both know something. Next moment the person’s gone, and it’s too late to do anything about it.”
— Jack Foley from Out Of Sight

Tony Gilroy‘s Duplicity is the ultimate cinematic cock tease. Duplicity has everything going for it right from the starting gate, but ultimately the film fizzles where it should sizzle. It is not a bad film, far from it, but after all is said and done, one wonders if they have just seen a comedy of manners written with enough reversals to give David Mamet a run for his money. Although “fuck” is never used enough to give it the traditional David Mamet touch, it is con game film. Tony Gilroy’s screenplay may be too smart for its good. Steven Spielberg had confessed that the film was too confusing for him to understand so he passed on directing it.

After Michael Clayton, Tony Gilroy should be directing all of his own screenplays. Michael Clayton is a hard film to top for a variety of reasons — not only is it George Clooney at the top of his game, but it was a fantastic directorial debut for screenwriter, Tony Gilroy. Gilroy deserves a lot of credit for rescuing Robert Ludlum and more specifically, the character of Jason Bourne from the dreaded wasteland of the ABC Television miniseries which starred Richard Chamberlain. Gilroy stripped away the dated Cold War melodrama of the Jason Bourne novels and focused on the personality of Jason Bourne. The result is one of the most groundbreaking action series ever made, the James Bond series reboot its style.

Gilroy is a master of his craft, but when he got behind the camera with Michael Clayton, he upped his game considerably. I really hate hearing how Michael Clayton evokes the cinema of Seventies. Look I love that decade, but there have always been great issue films in every decade. Michael Clayton would play well in any decade. The film is Frank Capra with sharp teeth. Look, Meet John Doe holds up very well today. Michael Clayton plays especially well for our times as we are going through the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. The current outrage over the bonuses at A.I.G. and the other corporate crimes committed over the last thirty years seem tailor made for the plotlines of Michael Clayton — greed and corruption never die. The best actor Oscar would have gone to George Clooney for his performance in Michael Clayton, but Daniel Day-Lewis could not be challenged because his performance was extraordinary!

Duplicity has so many layers that the film threatens to drown in its own cleverness and at times it is nothing more than a series of reversals. Given those reversals, the film is complex, but never dense enough not to follow, but pay attention because this is one film you do not want to miss a single moment. Despite the complexity, the film is ultimately about nothing. In the end, it is what George Costanza said on an episode of Seinfeld when he and Jerry were pitching a pilot to NBC:

“The show is about nothing.”

Perhaps, after the seriousness of Michael Clayton, Mr. Gilroy wanted to have some fun, some very serious fun. The meat of the film is the buildup which is incredible throughout. The film is very much like Philip Glass’ score to Paul Schrader’s Mishima — all work, but no climax.

Films like Duplicity do not come along as often as they should. In many ways it seems like a clever throwback to a smarter era of films. It is a dazzling mix of genres: caper, screwball comedy, espionage thriller, and ultimately something akin to a comedy of manners for Generation X. Mr. Gilroy has decided to put House Of Games, Syriana, Trouble In Paradise, The V.I.P’s, Out Of Sight, How To Steal A Million, Rollover, The Grifters, Hopscotch, and the old school James Bond films into a Cuisinart in order to make an incredible cinematic mix. I could name a whole host of films to sell you the idea of the film. The film does have breeziness about it that reminds me at times of the Coen Brothers’ 2008 spy comedy, Burn After Reading — a trifle of a film, but even a trifle by the Coen Brothers is fun. Joel and Ethan Coen must have conspired with Tony Gilroy to make sure that they made lighter fare after their respected critical Oscar winning successes of 2007. Still, Burn After Reading has nothing on Duplicity. Stephen Gaghan’s Syriana was not even this convoluted. Duplicity has a little bit of everything. It may just be a romantic comedy — an old fashion love story.

The witty banter back and forth between Clive Owen‘s Ray Koval and Julia Roberts‘ Claire Stenwick is enough to make one think they are watching a modern era comedy of manners which we do see enough of in this day and age — that great genre of films made by Billy Wilder, Ernst Lubitsch, Preston Sturges, Howard Hawks, and many others. Woody Allen kept the flame alive for the first half of his career and he did it better than anyone else until Pedro Almodovar came along and rewrote the book on the genre. George Clooney tried to reinvent the genre along with the screwball comedy with last year’s Leatherheads, but you need to have willing and engaged participants for this kind of film. Renee Zellweger was no match for George Clooney. He has the charm and delivery, but sadly Renee could never match it. Clooney had much better luck on Stephen Soderbergh’s Out Of Sight where he played opposite Jennifer Lopez. Out Of Sight was one of those watershed films. Soderbergh and Clooney were on the ropes and the film’s success proved to the world that Clooney was leading man material in the old Hollywood tradition and Soderbergh could make a big studio film and still do it his way. Out Of Sight was remarkable for the fact that George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez had great chemistry on screen. She never found another leading man to work with in same way again. Even Ralph Fiennes could not elevate Maid In Manhattan above its typical romantic comedy clichés.

The sad thing is that today the successors to the comedy of manners are the inane romantic comedies that dominate the multiplex. And of these, only the British are getting them right most of the time, most notably, Love Actually. Yet before I get into Duplicity, it must be noted that Doug Liman’s Mr. And Mrs. Smith may have been the 21st Century’s first answer to what a comedy of manners should in fact look like. Doug Liman may have made the most hyper and violent comedy of manners of all time. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie play a normal married couple, but each of them is a trained professional assassin. Neither of them knows what the other does for a living, but things change when their employers decide to have them take out each other. It does not help matters that their marriage is on the rocks. It is Doug Liman’s take on the comedy of the manners. Yet, the film is really a devastating cinematic Dear John letter to Jennifer Aniston. There is no denying the chemistry between Pitt and Jolie in the film, even if it is montage of W Magazine photo spreads brought to life. The film destroyed one marriage and created another which continues to finance the tabloids.

The comedy of manners has always been with us in one way or another. Unfortunately we do not have the likes of Billy Wilder and Howard Hawks making films anymore. Did Cameron Crowe really inherit Wilder’s mantle with Say Anything, Singles, and Jerry Maguire? Maybe, but they are really watershed romantic comedies that set the bar really high. Almost Famous was perfect in every way. Elizabethtown was much better in hindsight and demonstrated Mr. Crowe’s knack for using pop music so well in his films. Still, if Mr. Crowe was giving the romantic comedy class, the comedy of manners was getting reworked by its most unlikely agent, Quentin Tarantino. Jackie Brown is more about men and women than it is about crime. Tarantino took Elmore Leonard’s Rum Punch and created his own take on the genre. At its heart, the film is about the relationship between Pam Grier’s Jackie Brown and Robert Forster’s Max Cherry. Their relationship is the heart of the film. And if Tarantino skimmed the surface of comedy of manners in that underrated film, he went for broke in Kill Bill: Volumes One and Two. In Kill Bill: Vol. 2, the audience realizes this is a full blown love story as we open up with the doomed wedding of The Bride and Tommy Plympton. David Carradine’s entrance in the film makes us rethink everything we thought we knew about Bill. Toward the end of the film, part of us wants to see the two get back together, but in the end, we want to see Beatrix carry out her revenge. Each scene between David Carradine’s Bill and Uma Thurman’s Beatrix Kiddo along with Tarantino’s trademark dialogue reveals a witty banter which owes a lot to the great comedies of the 1930’s and 1940’s. Kill Bill: Vol. 1 and Kill Bill: Vol. 2 are the ultimate revenge films with the hint of romantic comedy.

The verbal duels between Julia Roberts and Clive Owen in Duplicity are worth the price of admission. As Claire Stenwick and Ray Koval, their chemistry is even stronger than it was in Mike Nichols’s Closer. In order for Duplicity to work, one needs to have actors up for the challenge; Mr. Gilroy could not have found two better actors to pull off this feat. Koval is an ex-MI6 agent and Stenwick is ex-CIA. I notice that Koval did not suffer the same fate as Patrick McGoohan’s Number Six in The Prisoner; he got out of the service with no problems. From the opening moments where the two meet at an American Embassy garden party in Dubai in 2003, we know we are in good hands. Their banter is natural, not forced at all. The audience is a lucky voyeur as the two rival espionage agents begin their pleasant duel. It is foreplay disguised as professional rivalry with flirtation doing the work. In this case, Claire sleeps with Ray, drugs him, and snatches some top secret documents from him. The chemistry is set from the opening moments. This is going to be a very different kind of comedy. It will not be the usual poison we have become accustomed to over the last decade. Duplicity is a far cry from New In Town or Made Of Honor for that matter. Thanks to Tony Gilroy’s script, the film is a reminder that many people still like an intelligent and funny film.

Ray and Claire are no longer in the government service business. They are in a new line of work — corporate espionage. In one sense, Gilroy has created a clever parody of his last film, Michael Clayton. That film was a rallying cry against corporate avarice and it worked very well. Here, Gilroy turns it on its head by having Claire and Ray work for rival consumer-products giants. Claire works for Burkett & Randle which is run by Tom Wilkinson‘s Howard Tully and Ray works for Equikrom which is led by Paul Giamatti‘s Dick Garsik. Wilkinson and Giamatti play their parts to perfection. Both characters are brilliant parodies of Jack Welch, Rupert Murdoch, Barry Diller, and any other so-called tycoons you want to throw in there.

With the corporate espionage angle, Gilroy is entering John Le Carre territory. After the Cold War, Le Carre was one of the few authors who was able to find a new angle and create some very memorable novels. After all, The Constant Gardener was an angry screed against the pharmaceutical companies. In 2005, Fernando Meirelles made an even angrier film based on the novel. The corporate warfare tactics are no different from the Cold War tactics that Le Carre used to describe in great detail in his novels. Tully and Garsik want to annihilate each other. It is the other rivalry that is not as friendly as the main one between Ray and Claire. It is a great juxtaposition. What is even better is that Claire and Ray work for the same company, Equikrom. It turns out that Claire has been planted within Burkett and Randle as a mole. Yet within the corporate espionage world, it is not the future of nations at stake, but the future and survival of companies at stake. The prize is a lotion or cream that could dominate the market for years to come. Claire and Ray hope to steal the formula and sell it to the highest bidder. They could walk away richer than they ever dreamed. How To Steal A Million meets The Hot Rock for our times. The film is a caper film, a comedy of manners and a sexy thriller. The caper film has never gone out of style. Look at last year’s The Bank Job. There is a rush to being able to beat the system and to come out ahead. George Clooney’s Danny Ocean said it best in the Stephen Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven remake:

“Cause the house always wins. Play long enough, you never change the stakes. The house takes you. Unless, when that perfect hand comes along, you bet and you bet big, then you take the house.”

All three of the Ocean’s films exhibited the thrill of the heist. The Bank Job was another example of the caper film that did it right. In good or bad economic times, there is a deep level of satisfaction in beating the bank, the casino or especially the large corporation. The caper/heist film is the perfect catharsis for living vicariously through the lives of others. As A.I.G. and other bailed out executives get bonuses from taxpayer money, the rage permeates through the landscape. The populist anger can be heard and felt from Main Street to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Ever since this Economic Crisis began, the movies have become more important to us. Business has been at record highs this year. Granted, no one wants to go for a lecture and Duplicity is no lecture, but it is hard not to root for Ray and Claire as they try to beat the house.

Stephen Soderbergh’s Out Of Sight was George Clooney’s breakthrough role. Jack Foley was the role that cemented his status as a throwback to the Old Hollywood leading man. It was the role that allowed him to become George Clooney, the movie star. No film had really given him the chance to shine before Out Of Sight. Soderbergh performed a similar transformation with Julia Roberts where she played the title character in Erin Brockovich. It was not that she was doing anything wrong before this film, but Soderbergh took the promise of her role in Michael Collins and took a chance. Roberts proved she could do much more than Pretty Woman, My Best Friend’s Wedding, Notting Hill, and Runaway Bride. In hindsight, she was the most promising actress of Generation X. She was delightful in Everyone Says I Love You and she hit all the right notes with Denzel Washington in The Pelican Brief. She rightfully deserved the Best Actress Oscar for Erin Brockovich. And yet the films that followed the Oscar win, were half cocked at best: The Mexican, America’s Sweethearts, and Full Frontal. She looked like she was having the time of her life as Tess in Ocean’s Eleven and Ocean’s Twelve playing with the boys. She was excellent opposite Clive Owen in Closer. She, along with everyone else, was wasted in the eternally bland Mona Lisa Smile. Motherhood made her part as the voice of Charlotte in Charlotte’s Web one of her greatest and most emotional roles. As Joanne Herring in the vastly underrated Charlie Wilson’s War, one wonders why it took so long for her and Tom Hanks to star together in a film. Duplicity is considered her first leading role since she had children. It is the comeback role. Claire Stenwick is an excellent character to reintroduce her to the movie going public. She has a natural ability to glide on the screen and take charge of the situation. Claire Stenwick is equal parts Erin Brockovich, Annette Benning’s Myra Langtry in The Grifters, and Tess Ocean. As an actress, she has built up our trust over the last twenty years; we are happy to see in a real leading role opposite one of the best actors of the generation. While the dynamics may be different from Closer, Owen and Roberts have a unique chemistry that is undeniable in the film.

Ever since Mike Hodges’ Croupier hit the circuit, Clive Owen has made a vivid impression. He was also astonishing in Mike Hodges’ I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead. He was a natural in Robert Altman’s Gosford Park, holding his own with some of the finest British actors alive. He displayed a raging intensity as Larry in Closer. His performance in the film suggested that he was Richard Burton’s true heir. He was one of Angelina Jolie’s better leading men in Beyond Borders. He sizzled in Sin City. He was the smartest guy in the room as Dalton Russell in Spike Lee’s Inside Man. Yet everything that comes before and after his role as Theo Faron is Alfonso Cuaron’s vastly underrated Children Of Men seems almost secondary. As Theo, he takes the mantle of dystopian leading man from Charlton Heston and claims it for himself. The scene where he is carrying the first baby born after so many years down the stairs in a war beaten apartment remains one of the most powerful images committed to film in some time. Yet, he cannot do it alone all the time. He needs a good actress to work with and that is not always the case. In Derailed, Jennifer Aniston was poorly miscast as Lucinda. In retrospect, Clive Owen’s Shoot “˜Em Up co-star, Monica Bellucci, would have made a much better Lucinda. In The International, Naomi Watts is given little or nothing to do and that is a shame after watching her work opposite Viggo Mortensen in Eastern Promises. The International should have been much better than it turned out. Tom Tykwer’s thriller wants to be Three Days Of The Condor, The Conversation, The Parallax View, and The French Connection for our times, but it is nothing more than a variation on The Firm.

A bank is the root of all evil in the film and we are all slaves to debt in it — perhaps it hit too close to home. Still, given the film is directed by the same director as Run, Lola, Run and Heaven, it a shame that the film does not ever come together. In The International, there is a wild shootout at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City where the film does come alive. It is one of the best action sequences in some time that would make Michael Mann, Walter Hill, and Brian De Palma envious. It is a sequence in search of a film to build itself around. The film’s greatest fault may be it does not know what to do with Clive Owen. Even Shoot “˜Em Up knew how to use Clive Owen to great effect. He has that same brooding intensity as Daniel Craig. The International never takes advantage of it. In Duplicity, Tony Gilroy does take advantage of everything that has come before and gives Mr. Owen enough to work with, maybe too much to with at times. Clive Owen is the perfect sparring partner for Julia Roberts. At times, we do not know who is seducing whom, but we know that this is where the film works best.

Tony Gilroy has crafted an engrossing, if at times, flawed second directorial effort. He uses all the gifts of his previous screenplays and his previous directorial film, Michael Clayton to great effect. The film looks astonishingly beautiful thanks to the cinematography of Robert Elswit. He also did the cinematography for Michael Clayton as well as Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterpiece, There Will Be Blood. Thanks to John Gilroy‘s smart editing, the film never drags as we keep going back and forth between the past and present.

For everything that Duplicity does right, I feel cheated by the time the film comes to end. No matter how beautiful the closing shot is and we have been waiting the whole time for this closing shot, the film is ultimately a letdown of sorts. In one way, that makes perfect sense. The buildup to the film’s climax is so exhilarating that it would be impossible for it not to be anticlimactic, but the film does feel like a cop out — a striptease with no payoff. The title suggests we are being conned. The film mirrors the last thirty years in which was nothing more than a mirage of wealth and profits. In the end, the film feels like a Ponzi scheme orchestrated by Bernard Madoff and his ilk. Most of us were drunk from the excess or the promise of excess and never caught on to the great scam that was being committed before our eyes. Whether it was a bogus claim to go to war or just a series of bubbles that everyone knew were going to burst; we enjoyed the ride, but the outcome hurt us in the morning. Duplicity is a great deal of fun while the audience is watching it, but when the credits come up, one has to ask, was there anything there to begin with?

1 Comment »

  1. Wow. This is the best review I’ve read of this film. It makes me actually want to see it now.

    Comment by BAADASSSSS! — April 10, 2009 @ 12:21 am

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