Monday, March 30, 2009

"Duplicity" (Tony Gilroy, 2009)


“Duplicity” is to “Michael Clayton” what “Scoop” was to “Match Point” – it reworks the same theme (an anti-corporate diversion), but in a comedic manner. It’s also a lesser movie, just like “Scoop” was. But it remains a successful one.

The romantic couple, played by Clive Owen and Julia Roberts, seem to meet for the first time more than once in the course of “Duplicity”. Before we realize what’s Gilroy’s trick all about, we get a semi-spooky scene of Roberts not recognizing Owen, even though we know they slept with each other five years ago. Her act is so good that it becomes eerie – not only because it turns New York into Marienbad for a second, but also because it ultimately undermines the logic of the movie (there was no *need* of playing so well, since all the characters wanted was a convincing *voice recording* of the conversation).

However, this device serves as a potent metaphor, which the movie shares with screwball comedies: it’s all about a romantic couple reinventing their initial desire. We know well that there is nothing more helpful in this than living a life of scheming and/or crime: we know our “Thin Men”, we know our “Bonnies and Clydes”. And, most importantly, we know our “Trouble in Paradise”, because that seems to be the strongest point of reference for Gilroy. Lover’s quarrels are akin to accomplices’ quarrels here - the stakes are both love *and* the spoils.

However, we are far from the wonderfully amoral (and ethereal) universe of Lubitsch. There is a lot of rage in Gilroy’s characters – or maybe they are just truer to life. When Owen has sex with a love-starved office worker in order to get an important code, Robert’s reaction is far from distanced. Her rage and jealousy are violent and manifest themselves in action, not in witty, verbal retribution.

Other debt of Gilroy’s is to Preston Sturges. It’s hard not to think of Joel McCrea’s crazy airport dreams and of Claudette Colbert’s deadpan reactions, when Owen is delivering his “frozen pizza” rant, and Roberts cuts him short by just saying: “I’ve got a job”. Even the gratuitous scene of Owen’s co-spies mock-intimidating him into believing that they doubt his integrity – with both of them finally laughing and patting him on the back – has some Akim Tamiroff quality to it. And needed the lab really to have been located in *Dudwoody*, of all places? It’s pure Sturges, if you ask me.

I remember not liking “Michael Clayton” at first and then growing to like it more (the proofs of my initial reaction are to be found here). But what I also remember was some discussion going on a_film_by about representation of Tilda Swinton’s body – a corporate body no one wants and even the character looks down on. No shots of half-naked, humiliated Roberts here. True, she gets her Jack Lemmon-like lonely dinner scene, but it’s a delicate way of suggesting loneliness of a corporate worker (even such a skilled one as a counterintelligence spy).

Overall, I think this is a successful movie, even though it seriously slumps when its funny MacGuffin (“a new product!”) proves to be a hair-growth shampoo. Suddenly it’s all so flat. What I liked, though, was the last shot of Roberts and Owen shattered by the news of the final reversal of fortune. They’re immobile and dead like the couple buried in the sand in “Un chien andalou” – Gilroy pulls back his camera further and further… and, boom: they take each other’s hands, for the first time in the movie! So many adventures, just to arrive at the “L’Avventura” ending – a woman touching an unfaithful man in a big impersonal space of a hotel, with both of them in a desperate need to start all over. C’est la vie, I guess.


  1. “It really is that bad, isn’t it?”

    This is my favorite film so far this year, and yours is the only review I’ve read that tallies with what I saw. To the names of Resnais and Antonioni I’d add the Rivette of, say, Va Savoir – that final shot suggests a bare stage, as does the opening/closing fight on the tarmac. By the time we get to “Are you directing me?” we’re deep in Pirandello country, for sure. Where I differ from you is that I loved the MacGuffin: perfect for a film all about appearances, and a great non-sequitur to boot. And Owen checking his hairline is hilarious! It’s all about deflating star glamour, in a way. You could take Wilkinson’s big speech as explaining why Lubitsch-style filmmaking is impossible in today’s Hollywood: individuals count for nothing, corporations rule.

  2. This film was certainly trying hard for Preston Sturges -- and the Hawks of His Girl Friday -- but to say it falls short of the mark is a huge understatement. I thought most of the patter between Roberts and Owen was stale and lacking in chemistry, and the whole corporate espionage plot/MacGuffin is just silly. The film starts to pick up towards the end, when there's that great scene with Owen's handlers laughingly admiring the tape recording (it reminded me of the final diner conversation scene in Pineapple Express) and the romantic but sad denouement in the hotel. That last shot really is great. But by that point I'd long since since ceased to care, since to get there I'd had to trudge through so much boring, disinterested chatter posing as comedic banter. I could hardly believe this was the director of the assured, not-a-moment-wasted Michael Clayton.

    I do agree with your assessment of Scoop, however.

  3. Jake: I agree with you on Pirandello, with the constant "You're gaming me!", "We're in play", "Are we in play?", etc. As for the McGuffin: I loved it as long as it remained just that, but somehow the whole hair thing wasn't satisfactory to me. I'd prefer it to stay namels until the last scene of revelation, something along the lines of Aldrich's "Kiss me Deadly", I Guess. But I like your interpretation a lot! Don't forget though that Wilkinson's speech is *also* part of *his* act, so who knows how far can it take us. Thanks for the comment!

    Ed: It's interesting how many people told me just that - that they didn't buy the Owen-Roberts chemistry. They, too, point out that the movie is full of, as you call it, disinterested chatter. This is probably where Gilroy got me: I liked most of his dialogue a lot. His infatuation with Sturges is obvious, but I don't think he's aiming at duplicating (heh!) his effects. There is too little love of folly in Gilroy to do that. I think what Gilroy likes in Sturges is his affection for ridicilousness disguising as common sense (the "frozen pizza" rant sounds a little bit like Dick Powell explaining to his wife why his slogan is so good and witty). But by no means do I think that Gilroy achieves as good an effect as Sturges, of course.