MARCH 20, 2009
Last Year at
Proctor & Gamble
Tony Gilroy follows Michael Clayton with an unintriguing tale of corporate intrigue, undermined by its tiresome contrivances and its stars's zipless alliance.
By Mark Jenkins
Also opening in D.C. this week, a film I reviewed for NPR: I LOVE YOU, MAN. Clicking on that title will take you to www.npr.org.
IN A VARIETY OF CHIC ENVIRONS, a man approaches a woman. He says they've met before; she doubts his word. The meeting is restaged again and again; the dialogue is uttered multiple times. Are the man and woman lovers? Enemies? Conspirators?
The film is, of course, Last Year in Marienbad, a modernist masterpiece that reflects the staginess of Hollywood melodrama right back at that genre, refracting its unreality in a European hall of mirrors.
But the outline in the first paragraph also describes Duplicity, the new-Hollywood movie that attempts to reproduce the "sophisticated" old-Hollywood vibe that Marienbad coolly lampoons. Julie Roberts and Clive Owen play two operatives who meet and mate at party in Dubai. Later they encounter each again in New York, and Rome, and — one of writer-director Tony Gilroy's better jokes — Cleveland. They are "gaming" someone, but who is their mark?
Who, that is, other than the viewer? Duplicity is one of those movies that delights in its own cleverness long after most of the audience has lost interest. Arch chatter continues to echo, but sounds increasingly distant. Are those people still talking? Can there possibly be another twist? Are we really supposed to care?
Gilroy, who made the stylish and improbably convincing Michael Clayton, may draw a crowd to Duplicity, based on the box-office appeal of Roberts, and provided that most ticket-buyers don't confuse the movie with The International, and thus assume they've already seen it. They haven't, exactly, but there's nothing new in this genre-packed combo of '30s romantic comedy, '70s sting picture, and contemporary spy thriller.
When they meet for the first time — apparently — Claire Stenwick (Roberts) works for the CIA, and Ray Koval (Owen) for Britain's MI6. The calendar-crumpling narrative eventually twists to their second meeting, but never mind — what matters is that both leave their respective agencies to enter the booming (and potentially funnier) corporate-espionage field. Claire is hired by one consumer-products firm, headed by wily Howard Tully (Tom Wilkinson, who had a better part in Michael Clayton). Ray goes to work for its principal competitor, led by cocky Richard Garsik (Paul Giamatti, again splitting the difference between an obnoxious character and general obnoxiousness.)
Eventually, someone works a scam, only to find that someone else has pulled a con, and then to recognize that a third party has outhustled them both. The alleged fun is that the movie is always one step ahead of the viewer, until the final reverse-zoom shot allows realization to sink in. But boredom took control about an hour earlier, so the final revelation elicits just another yawn.
Duplicity is winning near-rave reviews from critics who've mistaken it for the movie it wants to be, so let's examine why it isn't. Some of the problem is casting, which in contemporary Hollywood has turned from an art form to a power struggle. That's how films like He's Just Not That Into You are concocted, with ensembles that pit actual actors (Jennifer Connelly) and sit-com pros (Jennifer Aniston) against TV-commercial tyros (Justin Long) and an amiable screen presence who happens to be a co-producer (Drew Barrymore).
Julia Roberts is another amiable screen presence — the top-grossing female one of recent years — while Owens is a preeminent glowerer. But Roberts, with her room-eating smile, can't do menace. And Owen can't be easygoing, so the proceedings are always off-kilter. Their one-note performances still might work, if there were any spark between them. It's immediately clear, however, that they're just not that into each other.
But then even great Hollywood rom-com stars of the '30 and '40s would have trouble with Gilroy's script, which calls on Claire and Ray to scam each other every time they reconnect. (It's sort like "meeting cute," except it's not cute.) You may have seen the example in the trailer, where Claire professes outrage that she found a pair of panties in Ray's apartment, only to admit that they're hers. Such dialogue is clearly crafted for onlookers, not for each other, so it makes no sense for Claire and Ray to utter it. If the two ex-spooks are so shrewd — and so sympatico, as they regularly tell each other they are — why would one of them always fall for the other's mindgame?
In one all-too-revealing scene, Claire and Ray rehearse their lines for a planned "accidental" meeting. Ray's improvs and Claire's jovial corrections are meant to demonstrate their rapport. Instead, it calls attention to the artificiality of their chatter. Even when they're really alone, and not being bugged, everything they say to each is for effect, not communication. These two are supposed to be soulmates, yet neither shows any evidence of having a soul.
In one of those hoary old battle-of-the-sexes rom-coms, the hostility is just a facade. But Claire and Ray — and Roberts and Owen, at least on screen — are all facade. For Duplicity to work, it would have reach to point, as Michael Clayton does, where something matters more than the game. It never gets there, which means it never gets anywhere at all.
DUPLICITY — 2009, 125 min; at multiplexes everywhere.