“Duplicity” is the type of title that solicits the need to have Clive Owen as one of the main participants in a labyrinth examination of corruption and greed that infests both the corporate and social world. His face exudes a rough exterior that contains unexpected depths beneath the surface that could contain feelings ranging from vulnerable to devious. There always seems to be something going on inside his head, as revealed by that wry smile, but the audience is unsure if they should be appalled or sympathetic about what keeps him motivated to continue down his current path.
Julia Roberts and Clive Owen create undeniable chemistry in “Duplicity” as two ex-intelligence agents who have gone undercover to take advantage of a rivalry between two bathing soap corporations with agendas that completely revolve around the obsession of being superior to their competition. Roberts and Owen had a similar, stimulating connection in the 2005 film “Closer,” a completely different film about a game with a unique set of rules.
One of the companies has apparently developed a special type of shampoo that would revolutionize the course of the entire industry. The chairman, Howard (Tom Wilkinson), is confident that this will firmly place his company years ahead of the opposition, especially gratifying because of his hatred for Richard (Paul Giamatti), the CEO of their primary competition.
Richard has already instituted spies inside the intelligence branch of Howard’s company, including Claire (Roberts), who is tasked with providing information about new products that may be coming down the pipeline. Ray (Owen) is the newest member of the intelligence team, along with her contact, and someone she had an intimate relationship with in Dubai five years ago. Claire and Ray have devised a scheme to steal the concoction and sell it for $35 million to a Swedish company with the extra advantage of having each one on both sides of the heated competition.
As you might imagine, the plot becomes much more complex with twists, turns, and unexpected revelations that make “Duplicity” both harder and easier to understand, sometimes simultaneously. This is the second directorial feature for Tony Gilroy after “Michael Clayton,” which was nominated for seven Academy Awards including Best Picture, and both have similarities in that they have intricate stories in which the audience is as confused about the players involved as the audience.
“Duplicity” is not as successful as “Michael Clayton” because the previous film dealt with characters discovering morality within themselves they were not aware of before, while the people in this one are more concerned with decoding the sophisticated scheme, which is not as emotionally intriguing. In “Duplicity,” there are no moral dilemmas because none of the characters have ethics. All of them are attempting to prosper in a world where amicability is a weakness that could make you vulnerable to unforeseen and unintended horrendous consequences that could ruin the remainder of your life. Contentment is something these individuals will never be able to achieve.
The dialogue in “Duplicity” is written as a series of questions in which nobody is aware of the answers. Even the intimate thoughts of the characters are posed as inquiries, rather than straightforward statements of a soul finally beginning to truly express itself. The film asks the question: Can love be found between two people who do not trust each other? “Duplicity” argues that this is possible if both individuals are aware of each other’s nature.
“Duplicity” is another film that does not view corporations in a particularly favorable light, believing that they will perform all types of dirty tricks in order be seen as a superior entity within their industry. Roberts and Owen play extraordinarily intelligent people who know this world and realize that happiness might not be attainable, but strive for it nonetheless. “Duplicity” deals with love, lust, greed, and dishonesty in a light-hearted manner, but, as in “Michael Clayton,” the affection and feelings between the characters are genuine and the action does stop to notice the significance of these moments in their lives. This is what elevates “Duplicity” above the ordinary movies that tell stories of con games, which pride themselves in being heartless and succeed in becoming infinitely less interesting.