Three movies jockey for position in Duplicity: one is a charming, seductive love story; one is a sleek, spy vs. spy tale of intrigue; one is a satire of industrial espionage and corporate greed. They're all fun, and funny, and they all center on a pair of paranoid spies -- he's former MI6, she's former CIA -- now romantically involved with each other (maybe genuinely), and in the midst of a long con. But who is conning whom? That's the key question in Duplicity, and the answers, when they come, reveal additional layers of sneaky, twisty intrigue and duplicitousness (is triplicitousness a word? -- it should be).
The chief con man in Duplicity is writer-director Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton), who is utterly at ease with both the spy games and the witty banter. Here is a different kind of spy movie, in which guns are never drawn (nor even seen), nothing explodes, and no one is killed. There are fisticuffs, of a rather amusing sort, when the doughy CEOs of rival corporations have at each other in a symphony of slapstick violence on a rainy airport tarmac, but Duplicity is otherwise a bloodless movie. Which is not to say that the stakes are not high. Millions of dollars are on the line -- but it's not exactly life or death. Indeed, the object of all the intrigue and paranoia and lust (of the standard kind, and the corporate kind), is rather frivolous (although for a certain segment of the population, perhaps not).
The multinational, highly diversified corporations at the center of all the intrigue are Burkitt & Randle and Equikrom, headed by Tom Wilkinson and Paul Giamatti, respectively, as different species of ruthless executive predators. One can imagine them reading Sun Tzu over their morning steak and eggs, and drafting Patton-inspired speeches about the premium diaper wars. Each corp has a spy division, running security, psy ops, and counterintel, spreading disinformation, bugging phones, hacking office equipment, spying on rival employees, spying on their own employees, and spying on their own spies, including Claire (Julia Roberts), Ms. CIA, now deep undercover infiltrating a rival firm, and Ray (Clive Owen), Mr. MI6.
Ray and Claire have history, dating years back to an incident in which she seduced him and stole some secret codes. Love followed (or was it an elaborate revenge plot?), as it so often does after the unwilling exchange of top secret intel. They find common ground, professionally and sexually, but they both have trust issues, and good reasons to be wary and suspicious of each other, and one of the fun questions Duplicity asks is whether they are paranoid because they're spies, or whether they're spies because they're paranoid. And whether a spy should date another spy, or if a spy could ever really date anyone else. Owen and Roberts are perfectly matched, evoking old Hollywood glamour (think Grant and Hepburn) and adding real sparkle and sharp teeth to their quick-witted, hot- and cold-blooded banter. Theirs is a battle of wits between evenly matched opponents, and they simmer and boil over with romantic comedy regularity and fizz. They're greedy, sneaky, and suspicious, but they're also charming, smart, sophisticated and handsome. Is it just me, or do most romantic comedies seem to feature cute, bickering idiots these days? Ray and Claire act like grown-ups, not cute idiots, which is a refreshing change.
The story, with its back and forth, convoluted timeline, reveals tiny bits of intel to the attentive viewer without ever giving up the game. Treachery, double and triple crosses, a complex and constantly shifting emphasis on different plotlines -- the whole movie is a big, elaborate con of the most enjoyable kind.