Whether it's the amnesiac super spy of the Bourne franchise or the weary law-firm fixer of Michael Clayton, Tony Gilroy specializes in characters who wear so many masks that, memory loss or no, they scarcely know who they are anymore. Guided by instinct, his soldiers of fortune patrol a ruthless landscape of big government and bigger business, where truth is traded like any other commodity and dissenting voices are more often silenced than heard. So it's little surprise that, for his second film as director, Gilroy leans heavily on his favored tropes of international espionage and cutthroat capitalism. The surprise is that Duplicity is a comedy — about two people who love each other more than they could ever trust each other — and a superb one at that.
Whatever one thought of the undeniably smart, often unbearably overwrought Michael Clayton, few would have pegged it as the work of an inspired farceur. Yet Duplicity is nearly as bubbly as the Champagne whose corkage becomes a running motif, as if the heretofore dour Gilroy were finally releasing a long-suppressed giggle. Even the corridors of corporate malfeasance are a markedly less sinister place this time around; where the fictional petrochemical giant of Michael Clayton considered staged suicides and car bombs the cost of doing business, the worst one can expect from Equikrom, Duplicity's Procter & Gamble-esque manufacturing behemoth, is that it will steal its competitors' garbage (and closely guarded R&D secrets).
The job of executing this trash-heap skullduggery falls to a team of intelligence experts, including two former government operatives who've retired to the private sector. Ex-CIA officer Claire Stenwick (Julia Roberts) is already deep undercover as a mole inside Equikrom's chief rival, Burkett & Randle, when ex-MI6 agent Ray Koval (Clive Owen) comes aboard the Equikrom team. Theirs is a tense reunion, stemming from an episode of drunken flirtation, lovemaking and stolen Egyptian air-defense codes five years prior. But they agree to set aside their differences in order to focus on the mission at hand: Penetrate the firewall surrounding Burkett's new, top-secret "miracle" product. It all seems straightforward enough, until we discover that this isn't the first — or even the second (or the third) — time Claire and Ray have crossed paths in the last half-decade. By which point, Duplicity is already a few paces ahead of us, and it's only just getting started.
I could say that the fun of Gilroy's who's-conning-whom bauble, which ping-pongs about in time and place from New York to Rome to London and back, comes from not knowing where it's headed next. That's partly true, but the rarer pleasure is the confidence that Gilroy inspires, such that where he's taking us hardly matters at all. Like the tart-tongued screwball romps of the 1930s and Soderbergh's latter-day screwball Out of Sight, Duplicity luxuriates in implausible situations, high-caliber dialogue that ricochets off every Dolby Digital speaker and two immensely likable movie stars who possess the thing that no amount of intra-agency packaging can will into being: chemistry. After schlepping his bedraggled self through the torpor-inducing hoops of The International, Owen here gets to travel in far more suitable Giorgio Armani style, while Roberts (at her most radiant) steals what may be the movie's funniest scene without saying a single word.
Comedy seems to have liberated Gilroy, who directs Duplicity with the high gloss and fleet-footed hustle of a golden-age Hollywood craftsman. There's nary a dull stretch in its two-hour breadth, and the edges and corners of the frames pop with colorful support from the likes of Paul Giamatti and Tom Wilkinson as Equikrom and Burkett's dueling CEOs, whose slo-mo airport-tarmac throwdown underneath the movie's opening credits generates much early cheer. A Darwinian at heart, minus the Coen brothers' irrepressible misanthropic streak, Gilroy seems drawn, above all, to creatures of habit and the ways in which they adapt — or don't — to environmental changes. So the spies of Duplicity keep spying (on their bosses and themselves) and the competitors keep competing, whether they need to or not. Like Gilroy himself, they exult not in the game, but in the playing.