Claire Stendahl (Roberts) and Ray Koval (Owens) meet while on assignment in Rome; Claire is working for the CIA and Ray is working for MI6. After a couple of days of passion, they begin to suspect each other of sabotaging their current mission. We catch up with them a few years later. Claire is now working as the head of security for one of the largest manufacturers of personal hygiene products. The head of the company, Howard Tully (Tom Wilkinson) is in a battle to the death with his rival, Richard Garsik (Paul Giamatti), the head of a rival personal hygiene company. Garsik's company hires Ray as their head of security and he quickly learns they have a mole in the rival company. The mole is Claire. Garsik is desperate to get his hands on the formula for Tully's top-secret product, to beat him to the punch. Garsik believes that whoever is first, becomes the leader, so he isn’t above corporate espionage to get that secret. But Claire and Ray also have a plan and want to beat everyone else to the punch, retiring with enough money to live out the rest of their lives in luxurious comfort.
We first meet Claire and Ray a few years ago in Rome. They immediately realize they are rivals and try to stay abreast of one another. The easiest way for this to happen is for them to share a bed, so they spend a couple of days of passion getting to know as little about each other as possible. As they leave, furious with one another, the story flashes forward to present day.
Two bitter rivals, Howard Tully (Wilkinson) and Richard Garsik (Giamatti) would like to see the rival's company go down, for their rival to be erased from the face of the planet Earth. All clues point to Tully announcing a big new product and this leads Garsik to employ a team of spies. He so hates Tully he wants to steal the secret and beat his rival to the punch. And Tully seems to be aware of these shenanigans, hiring a team of his own to protect the secret. Tully has a team of people in place and this includes Claire who has been with the company for fourteen months. But Ray is back in New York, working for Garsik, and is shocked to see Claire at Grand Central, when he is scheduled to make a drop off. He pursues her and learns she is his contact.
As Gilroy moves us through the story, he occasionally flashes back to key moments in the relationship between Claire and Ray. Claire comes up with an idea very early on; they will go to work for rival companies and get access to some secret and sell it to a rival and make a mint of money, enough money for them to retire on and live in grand fashion for the rest of their lives. Ray is all for the idea. As the two have clandestine meetings over the next few years, we learn that as much as these two love each other, they seem to have issues trusting one another. Too many years spent as spies.
As Gilroy guides us through this relationship, we visit key moments when they seem to come to realizations and everything seems to be unraveling. But then we remember these are flashbacks, the story we are currently watching is 'Present Day', they are still together, but still don't seem to trust one another. These moments are meant to help illustrate, provide insight into something else.
Caper films are especially hard to pull off. Everything has to make sense, all of the dots have to be connected, the viewer has to be surprised by the con. I guarantee you will not see the con coming and even better yet, Gilroy connects the dots and makes this part of the story very believable, very enjoyable and mind-numbingly complex. A very good job.
Julia Roberts returns to the big screen in her first starring role in some time. And she handles this type of role perfectly, commanding our attention every time she is on the screen. I have never been the biggest fan of Roberts, but when she gets her teeth into a role, or has fun with it, she is great. There are few other actresses who seem to have such grace and ease on screen, such command of their roles and their characters. It also benefits Roberts that this film is a caper, a lighthearted look at a con between two rival spies. She can have fun and this fun infects just about every frame of film she is in.
What surprised me about her performance, and the film, is that her character is pretty serious throughout most of the film. Most capers are pretty light hearted, played for laughs ("Oceans 11", "12, "13"). But "Duplicity" paints the picture of two people who are engaged in a cut throat game of cat and mouse. They aren't in danger, but they are in a game of survival. Both have left their positions with their respective government agencies and now want to guarantee they will live in comfort for the rest of their lives. If they fail at the task, they return to square one and lose a number of years of work and planning.
And because they are both serious, their relationship seems to be more substantial somehow. Claire, a former spy for the CIA, comes up with the plan, and thinks Ray is the man to live the rest of her life with. But she doesn't completely trust him and finds it difficult to let down her guard. After so many years of pretending she is someone else, hiding her identity, trying to stay safe, she is finding it difficult to be normal, relaxed, at ease.
As we visit key moments in their relationship, we pick up on the vibe. They are trying to keep their relationship secret, as part of their overall plan to infiltrate competing companies. The targets they have set their sights on are big and won't let just anyone in the inner circle. If they suspect just the slightest hint of foul play? No deal. So, they meet in clandestine ways, sharing romantic weekends together whenever they can arrange it. These rendezvous' reveal key points in their plans and provide greater details about their relationships.
Clive Owens is also great as Ray, the ex-MI6 agent who has retired to become involved in Claire's plan. But why is Ray shocked to see Claire in Grand Central shortly after he becomes a member of Garsik's security team? It's all part of the plan. Everything is all part of the plan.
As Ray gets deeper and deeper into the relationship, Owens shows us how Ray is becoming slightly more desperate as well. His desperation is born from the fact that he realizes he is falling in love with Claire and this may be causing him to let down his guard. He also becomes frustrated because he doesn't sense the same thing happening in Claire. She seems to be in control, she seems to be slightly aloof at all times.
Clive Owens just is the right type of person for this role. He has the right build, the right temperament, the right attitude to play spies, investigative reporters, detectives, and the like. In "Duplicity", he is able to bring a certain tongue-in-cheek attitude to the role. Yes, the game becomes pretty serious for them, but the background of the story remains light and bouncy, in a way, just like a good caper should be. And Owens is able to make Ray a perfect participant in this type of story. Serious at times, but not above teasing and playing around with Claire, his future partner.
Tom Wilkinson plays Harold Tully, the head of a large company that makes many products, but seems to have a large stake in personal hygiene products. Tully is a calm man, preferring to keep his office very simple and Zen-like. When he is confronted by a possible threat from his rival, Richard Garsik, he takes the news in stride and simply tries to stay one step ahead of his rival.
Wilkinson is able to instantly show us a lot of information the first time we see him. His office is sparse and plain, big, dominated by a large concrete desk and wide windows. But he is the head of a company making many products, with a revenue in the billions. Every time we see Tully, Wilkinson gives the character a slight look of anxiety, showing us how the world is resting on his shoulders.
He knows that Garsik is sniffing around, trying to find out about their newest discovery, so he instructs his team to go to elaborate measures to hide every trace of the new product. And Garsik's team begins to unravel all of these clues, it takes them a little longer, but they begin to work it all out. As this happens, we get the sense Tully is aware they are close to uncovering the new product, and Wilkinson only seems to make the character become calmer, as though this is his way of dealing with the impending crisis.
Paul Giamatti plays Richard Garsik, the head of an equally large company with a very similar profile to Tully's. But Garsik is almost the complete opposite of Tully. Loud, brash and eager for the spotlight. He wants desperately to find out what Tully's new discovery is and beat him to the punch. He believes that whoever is first will be the leader. And he isn't interested in coming in second.
Giamatti seems to play Garsik with a lot of gusto, enjoying the robust character of this megalomaniac business giant. When Garsik becomes confident he is about to get Tully's newest secret, he makes the decision to announce to the shareholders in San Diego that his company is about to release the same thing, beating Tully to the punch. The first becomes the leader.
I am greatly impressed by both of Gilroy's directorial efforts, both of which he also wrote. He creates rich, well plotted stories filled with compelling, interesting characters and smart dialogue.
In "Duplicity" he deftly weaves us back and forth from the current story, back to key points in the relationship between Ray and Claire. When he brings the con to it's conclusion, he surprises us and still manages to tie everything up, making it all believable. He has done a remarkably good job with all of the complicated elements of the film.
What more can you ask for from a film director?