Starting with the film's enticing prelude, which finds Julia Roberts and Clive Owen engaging in the first of several argumentative flirtations in exotic locales, I felt that Duplicity was an intensely sharp, clever, enjoyable movie. It wasn't until its very last shot, though, that I felt it was also a great one.
An emotionally incisive and big-hearted entertainment masquerading as a lightweight frivolity, writer/director Tony Gilroy's follow-up to 2007's Michael Clayton (his directorial debut) is one of those comedically twisty, who's-screwing-whom contraptions in which multi-faceted layers of role-playing and gamesmanship aren't made entirely clear until the closing credits. When Duplicity's end credits roll, however, not only do you (almost) fully realize just how juicily diabolical the preceding scams have been, but just how little they actually matter in the scheme of things; Gilroy's exquisite structure fools you into thinking you're watching one kind of movie, and with its finale, reveals that you were watching an entirely different kind altogether. Those final, quiet seconds of Duplicity are about as satisfying as any that Hollywood has provided in years, which puts them on a par with the thousands of other seconds in this thrilling, wicked-smart offering. I left the auditorium wanting to re-watch the film immediately.
I won't, of course, give away the ending. And considering that many of Duplicity's chief pleasures come from its nearly ceaseless flood of surprises and reversals, I won't give away the middle, either. And I probably shouldn't describe the beginning, since it's repeated during the movie's middle and end. (It's that kind of movie.) So here's your extremely vague synopsis: Roberts is a former (current?) CIA agent now working for a global pharmaceutical conglomerate. Owen is a former (current?) agent for the British Intelligence outfit MI6, now working for a rival pharmaceutical conglomerate. The CEO of Roberts' company (Tom Wilkinson) is about to unveil a revolutionary new product; the CEO of Owen's company (Paul Giamatti) is intent on confiscating - and re-branding - the product before it hits the market. And so begins Duplicity's dizzyingly complex, though never incoherent, tale of corporate intrigue, hidden strategies, and romantic attraction, with Roberts and Owen playing inscrutable tricks of confidence on one another (and the audience) in an attempt to protect or steal Wilkinson's supposedly priceless asset.
Or are they? As moviegoers, we've grown so accustomed to "unexpected" narrative developments in this sort of cinematic-puzzle film that we almost instinctively second-guess (and third-guess, and fourth-guess) characters' true motivations. Yet one of the special delights in Duplicity is that we truly can't tell if Roberts and Owen are sincere about anything, least of all their affections. In a pair of magnificently close-to-the-vest portrayals, the stars are as radiantly, effortlessly charismatic as they've ever been - you'd have to go back to Erin Brockovich to see Roberts looking this relaxed and confident onscreen - and they deliver the hell out of Gilroy's stylish repartee. (The actors' sexy badinage is intensified by the richly evocative lighting of cinematographer Robert Elswit.) There's a shared gleam in their eyes, however, that seems to extend beyond one performer finding a perfect match in another; their characters appear lit up with subversive secrets, and neither is less trustworthy than when acting with complete earnestness. You're in thrall to Duplicity's plotting, but the power plays between Roberts and Owen are a whole movie unto themselves, and add to Gilroy's chronologically fractured comedy endlessly inspired levels of fascination.
Gilroy, who also wrote the trio of Jason Bourne thrillers, is that rare artist in commercial entertainments who isn't afraid to keep the audience in the dark for sustained periods of time - you learn what you need to when you need to - and his talents for protracted setups followed by hugely fulfilling resolutions are, in Duplicity, used to extraordinary effect. Yet there's very little about Gilroy's work here that isn't remarkable: his staging of nerve-wracking cat-and-mouse gambits (a scene of Roberts attempting to transmit a one-page document is a five-minute miracle of sustained tension); his ingenious, fluid assurance with regard to time, locale, and perspective; his graciousness in letting a slew of topnotch character actors (among them Denis O'Hare, Kathleen Chalfant, and Tom McCarthy) momentarily sneak the movie away from its stars; his happy willingness to play with traditional genre rules. (The film's opening credits take place over a slow-motion slapstick in which Wilkinson and Giamatti punch and kick the crap out of each other - a hysterical low-comedy encounter that's especially amusing if you have memories of the actors' John Adams and Ben Franklin in HBO's John Adams miniseries.) From first frame to last - and especially last - Duplicity is a superb, invigorating good time, easily the best of 2009's thus far questionable crop.
I LOVE YOU, MAN
I Love You, Man, in which Paul Rudd's feminized groom-to-be discovers a best bud in Jason Segel's eccentrically secure alpha male, is a funny and friendly entertainment, filled with fresh jokes and playful crudeness and a lot of witty (I'm assuming) improvisation from its stars. But while its concept and casting would seem to scream "Judd Apatow production" like crazy, Apatow wasn't actually involved in this comedy by director/co-writer John Hamburg and co-writer Larry Levin - and boy, is he ever missed.
You may not notice just how distinctive an Apatow movie is until you land on one that's Apatow-like in theory but not in spirit, and while I Love You, Man feels very much inspired by the comedy titan's output, it winds up feeling formulaic and kind of blah in ways that the writer/director's The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up (and even Apatow-produced works such as Superbad and Pineapple Express) simply don't. There are too many obvious, and un-commented-upon, contrivances, and too many comic conceits that feel straight out of Sitcoms 101 - the film's entire plot stems from Rudd accidentally hearing a conversation he wasn't meant to - and there's no irony to the requisite sentimentality; the last reel, with sad-bastard music underscoring the weightless drama, falls completely apart. Plus, with the exception of Rudd and Segel, almost no one in the cast emerges as a fully scaled comic character. In an Apatow movie, even amongst the bit players, everyone is funny (or is at least directed to be), but I Love You, Man finds too many actors struggling to wring laughs out of roles that have no laughs - is poor Jon Favreau going to be given a respite from playing one-note thugs anytime soon? - and even The Office's ravishing Rashida Jones, as Rudd's fiancée, is given nothing to do but smile and fret.
Still, for what it is, I Love You, Man is acceptable enough, and whenever Rudd and Segel get a snappy comic rhythm going, oftentimes more than acceptable enough. Rudd gets marvelous comic mileage out of his character's mortifying inability to just stop talking - he can't deliver a simple exclamation like "Totally!" without adding a meaningless "Totes-mah-goats!" afterwards - and although his role makes little sense, Segel is a wonderfully laid-back receptacle to Rudd's blathering; he smiles with genuine affection at his friend's lack of cool. (In many ways, Segel is playing the role Mila Kunis played opposite Segel in Forgetting Sarah Marshall.) Although the film is a little disappointing, I'd happily watch it again on DVD just for its stars' sweet and goofy banter; there may be random downers in I Love You, Man, but Rudd's humiliating gregariousness and Segel's dead-on channeling of Andre the Giant ("Anybody want a peanut?") certainly aren't among them.