At a Fourth of July party in Dubai in 2003, a handsome man in a cream blazer (Clive Owen) meets a beautiful woman in a low-cut print dress (Julia Roberts). He tosses a few shopworn lines her way and, because he’s Clive Owen, shopworn is good enough. Cut, all too typically, to shots of crumpled underwear on a hotel-room floor and a spent, naked Owen passed out on the bed; and then, only slightly less typically, to Roberts rifling through his folder of secret air-defense plans and checking his pulse to ensure that the drugs she administered post-coitally have rendered him merely unconscious and not deceased. He works for MI6, she works for the CIA, and, in contrast to the Bond canon, this is one instance when America comes out on top in the Special Relationship.
So begins writer-director Tony Gilroy’s Duplicity, a caper film boasting all the proper elements--attractive stars, a complicated heist, a variety of sharp reversals--save one: the requisite helpings of levity and charm. Like the carnal encounter with which it opens, it’s a film that goes through the motions, and while those motions are frequently pleasurable, we, like Owen, are ultimately left disappointed.
A few years after their down-and-dirty in Dubai, Owen’s Ray Koval and Roberts’s Claire Stenwick meet again in Manhattan, and find that this time they are on the same side. Both are now private-sector spooks working for a skin-cream conglomerate called Equikrom--Claire as a double-agent who’s spent 14 months infiltrating the firm’s corporate blood-rival, Burkett Randle, and Ray as her new handler. They dislike one another immediately.
Or do they? In a series of flashbacks we quickly learn that Ray and Claire met on several occasions between Dubai and New York (in Rome, London, Miami, and Cleveland, respectively, an unpromising trajectory if ever there was one), becoming lovers and hatching a plan to steal themselves a $40 million nest egg. The Spy-vs.-Spy machinations of Burkett Randle, which is on the verge of announcing a secret new blockbuster product, and Equikrom, which wants desperately to steal it, seem to offer just the opportunity Ray and Claire have been seeking.
Duplicity is Gilroy’s sophomore outing as a director (he rookied on Michael Clayton, and wrote the Bourne films, among others), and he has the usual fun planting schemes within schemes within schemes. Equikrom and Burkett Randle both employ platoons of moles and counter-moles, foot soldiers in the war for global domination between their respective CEOs: a feisty, profane corporate loudmouth (Paul Giamatti) and a WASPily serene patriarch (Tom Wilkinson) nonetheless unscrupulous enough to have, in his competitor’s words, “bought a dump so he could go through our garbage.” Phones are bugged, of course, but so are photocopiers; data security systems tougher than the Pentagon’s are probed for vulnerabilities; a chance meeting in a bar with a handsome stranger is never a chance meeting.
The film is something of a comeback bid for Roberts, who hasn’t headlined a movie since 2003’s Mona Lisa Smile (she’s been detained in the interim by Hazel and Phinnaeus, 4, and Henry, 1), and it’s hard not to conclude that she chose the wrong vehicle to reestablish herself. Vulnerability and an irresistible grin have always been centerpieces of her appeal, but Duplicity gets the ratio all wrong, rendering Claire the superspy more glum than game. Owen fares better, though he coasts perhaps a little more than he should on sheer physical charisma. Like Connery before him, he has a rare gift for seeming at once slender and solid; there are moments when he looks like someone who wandered in from a more stylish era of popular film.
But while Clive is often good, and Julia intermittently so, they are rarely much good together. This is largely not their fault. The flashbacks and present-day confrontations with which Gilroy saddles them really constitute one scene replayed to exhaustion: her aggressively suspicious, him mopily defensive, and both of them forever bemoaning the fact that their careers in deception have rendered them incapable of trust. But look, just because Claire and Ray constantly doubt one another doesn’t mean they can’t have a good time doing it. (To clarify this point, I recommend to Gilroy a re-viewing of Charade at his earliest convenience.) Instead of a passionate coupling of cunning minds, we get a pair of sumptuous steaks lacking any hint of sizzle, the espionage equivalent of an irritable old married couple. Even the mind-games they play on one another feel tepid: A punchline involving a pair of panties Claire finds in Ray’s apartment is telegraphed from miles away, and when it finally arrives, it lands with a thud, a joke the movie seems bored with before it’s even told it.
Gilroy deflates his film in other ways as well. Though he offers the split screens and related gimmicks common to the genre, he does so a bit diffidently: There’s something soft to his segues, which are often accompanied by languid strings instead of music that might generate more snap and momentum. Even when he opts for a bit of technopop accompaniment, it feels heavy and mirthless. (I’m hard pressed to think of a popular movie that I found less well-served by its score.) Gilroy flirted with heavy-handedness at times in Michael Clayton, too, but that was a film that wanted, however absurdly, to be taken seriously. Duplicity, by contrast, is supposed to be fun.
The obvious model here is Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven, which got plenty of things wrong but one big thing right: the mood of the merry con, of a game in which, however high the stakes, no one is in real danger of losing anything. Though it has its moments, Duplicity could’ve used a little more of its cinematic cousin’s crackle and fizz, a little more style, a little more playfulness. Or, as The King insisted while the jet bearing Soderbergh’s schemers was descending upon Vegas: a little less conversation, a little more action.
Christopher Orr is a senior editor of The New Republic.