[Screen It]

(2009) (Clive Owen, Julia Roberts) (PG-13)

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Drama: Two former government spies turned corporate operatives aren't certain they can trust each when they enter into a sexual and business relationship while working for rival companies.
Ray Koval (CLIVE OWEN) and Claire Stenwick (JULIA ROBERTS) are former government spies -- he worked for MI6, she for the CIA -- who ran into each other back in 2003, fell into bed, and he ended up drugged by her so that she could lift top-secret info from him. Having met several times since then for repeated trysts in various locales, they now work for the heads of competing corporations that will do anything to undermine the other.

Richard Garsik (PAUL GIAMATTI) would seem to have the upper-hand at that as he's hired a team of experts in corporate espionage -- including Ray, his boss Duke Monahan (DENIS O'HARE) and others -- to find out what Howard Tully (TOM WILKINSON) and his company have in the product release pipeline.

Tully's asked Claire and others to protect their newest release, with the catch being that her counter-intelligence team has no idea what that is. To complicate matters, she and Ray have secretly teamed up -- not only in the bedroom, but also the boardroom of sorts -- with hopes of stealing the corporate secret for their own financial gain. But there's only one obstacle -- beyond not letting anyone else know of their double-cross - standing in their way, and that is that they're not sure they can even trust each other.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
Considering the current economic crisis plaguing the world, many a corporation is nervous about the future, day to day operations, and for some, their very existence. In fact, one of the stated reasons that certain pharmaceutical giants are swallowing up their competitors is that it's the only way to insure their survival, particularly if their patents are expiring, competing generics are on the way, and they don't have anything in the pipeline.

While mergers and acquisitions have been around forever, in the old days it was more about simply outperforming the competition in terms of offering superior products and better customer services. Oh, and perhaps a little subterfuge thrown in for good measure.

Although the ads for "Duplicity" might make it appear to be a hip romantic comedy of some sort, it's really a slick drama about corporate espionage taken to the extreme, with a ruthless CEO (Paul Giamatti) doing whatever it takes to find out what his chief competitor (Tom Wilkinson) is preparing for release and then beat him to the punch with the same.

Speaking of punches, the film literally starts out with them as the two corporate heads -- standing on opposite sides of a tarmac beside their company helicopters and backed by their subordinates -- make ugly faces, scream and do aggressive finger pointing. They then take off toward each other in a rage, eventually making contact as their competitive spirit rises to a boil.

That might sound ugly or unsettling, and it is to a degree, but director Tony Gilroy shoots the scene in super slow-mo, highlighting the lunacy of the situation, and thus turns the moment into ludicrous comedy. It would also seem to set the stage (black comedy or not) for what's to follow.

Sadly, the rest doesn't quite maintain that spirit, and the introductory sequence that precedes it -- where a CIA official (Julia Roberts) and MI6 agent (Clive Owen) meet, fall in bed, and she drugs him for some information he's carrying -- similarly never burns as hot or bright as intended, which also holds true for all of their subsequent meetings, planning and chicanery.

You see, due to their background in espionage, they've been hired by the competing companies to spy on or find spies among them, and as any smart moviegoer knows, you can't trust spies. Gilroy holds his characters' true motives close to the vest -- pretty much right up until the end -- thus keeping viewers somewhat off balance about alliances and plans, especially by adding the element of the two spies deciding to team up on their own and thus take advantage of those who sign their paychecks.

Despite all of that and Gilroy -- working from his own script -- having his tale jump around through time (mostly in flashbacks showing Roberts and Owens meeting in different periods and locales), the film never really kicks into high gear. It's certainly easy enough to watch, and it does keep one engaged in trying to figure out how things will ultimately play out.

Yet, it isn't quite as clever or complex as it thinks it is. More importantly, it isn't as fun and/or charming as it could and should have been, something a slightly similar film such as the remake of "Ocean's Eleven" managed to exude so effortlessly a few years back.

Part of the problem is that the push and pull chemistry between Roberts and Owens never really ignites. Sure, there's the usual banter, the alternating hot and cold relations, and the fact that we don't know who's scheming who. But the two seem just to be going through the motions (as required by the script) rather than fully letting go and having fun with their characters, something that could have been infectious and thus spread to the viewer.

I understand that they're playing spies and thus some part of them has to be cautious and reserved, but the resultant chemistry is lukewarm at best. It also doesn't help that many of their interactions (those occurring in the flashbacks) pretty much follow the same pattern where they're happy to see each other, then get ticked off or at least suspicious of the other, and so on. Yes, that's the nature of the beast, but it gets a bit redundant after the second occurrence and so on.

Then there's the fact that as much as I like Owens in other flicks, I kept imagining how much better his character (and thus the resultant give and take with Roberts) might have been with George Clooney in the part, especially since the latter is seemingly tailor-made for such roles. And that, of course, would have reunited the director and star who proved they work quite well together with their last collaboration, "Michael Clayton."

Overall, it's a decent offering, and it's always good to see something aimed at those looking for something beyond juvenile cinematic offerings. I only wish the chemistry had been hotter and the plot filled with more twists, switchbacks and such. While there's the big one at the end, it's certainly not unexpected, and it should have been followed by more, all of which likely would have made "Duplicity" more entertaining and, better yet, fun to behold. The film rates as a 5 out of 10.

Reviewed March 13, 2009 / Posted March 20, 2009

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