Heists and espionage films share similar DNA, and to do either well involves effective plotting with unexpected twists which as well as being surprising also feel inevitable, bringing a sense of cognative dissonance with them. The quality of writing is imperative. On the other hand, a good love story, no matter the overarching genre of the film, can survive poor writing but needs the two leads to deliver believable performances whilst sharing incredible chemistry. Duplicity has smart writing, and the two main characters at the heart of the ongoing love story have outstanding chemistry, and yet it feels like there is something missing. There isn’t, in fact, but instead there is too much. This is a heist film, an espionage tale, a love story, a comedy, a satire, a commentary on corporate intellectual property hoarding, and an examination of the toxic masculinity that manifests in male CEOs of giant corporations where brawn is the size of their spending instead of their muscles and being first is the ultimate prize. It is trying to do too much, and as a result feels like too little.
The plot revolves around two corporate spies—one former CIA, the other ex-MI6—and their employment for a couple of large corporations. One business is trying to steal the idea for a forthcoming product from the other, and both seem to be paying excessive amounts of money to manage intelligence branches to ensure their product development secrets are maintained. The paranoia goes beyond that employed by tech giants in Silicon Valley in the real world and is, by and large, extreme.
The double-agent at the heart of this is played with cool steel by Julia Roberts. She is reserved and keeps her cards very close at all times, yet she allows herself moments of vulnerability where the slightest of facial expressions tells of her inner journey. It is a solid performance. Clive Owen is her counterpart, love interest, and handler, and he is charming and suave with enough pride to be confident yet an openness that shows his emotions. His character is more readable, but like Roberts his performance is excellent. Their chemistry could well be used as an example of good casting, demonstrating a believable connection that has depth and insecurities but also is magnetic. It is more than a Hollywood romance and feels authentic. It is here, in their sparring, that the writing truly excels.
The surrounding cast is made up of good players, including Tom Wilkinson and Paul Giamatti as the two rival CEOs. They are good but given less to work with, as everyone other than the central pair are faces that crop up and vanish without any need for development, character arcs, or depth. The investment in the love story may well be the film’s strength, but it is to the detriment of the surrounding espionage heist that the story focuses on.
The narrative is non-linear and constantly jumps around in time, which is more a gimmick than a necessity. Lining up the story to follow a linear fashion would not take anything away, but instead merely alter the order of reveals. Speaking of which, although some of the twists that crop up are interesting and surprising, the main gotcha moment at the end of the film was, for me at least, glaringly obvious. I spent the first half of the film waiting for it to be revealed as an early twist, but when it was not I resigned myself to being unsurprised at the conclusion. As a love story, Duplicity works, but as a spy tale, not so much.
Perhaps the need to wear so many hats has caused this film to lose its way, but for me it was more a disappointment than a success. The romantic tale of Owen and Roberts makes the film worth seeing, but it is a hollow victory when the rest of the narrative does not hold up. The inevitable split-screen filming of all heist movies shows up from the start as well, but feels inconsistent with the rest of the filming style, as if it was thrown in to make the trailers look good. Duplicity thinks it is smart, but it is not as clever as it makes out. It is not a funny comedy, nor a genius espionage tale, and nor a thrilling thriller. It is a charming love story, but almost as an aside, and that lack of focus ruins it. It is a good film, but not good enough.