At the end of cinematic confidence games like The Sting or The Spanish Prisoner or Nine Queens, everything clicks into place like sprocket holes into projector gears because somebody’s been choreographing the action all along. You know, the screenwriter. The script as hustle is, perhaps, the principle guiding Duplicity, from writer’s writer Tony Gilroy. As corporate spooks Clive Owen and Julia Roberts long-con rival biomedical conglomerates, Gilroy suggests that their plotting is really his plot.
At-least-double agents, their scam is necessarily a role-play — so too, they fear as they flirt/spar, is their romance, sparked by a seduce-and-steal-state-secrets meet-cute. Can they trust each other, or are they just acting? Gilroy shows them running their lines, “directing” each other; when Owen says something particularly Bond-ish, his wiretapping team quote him in dueling British accents, like you and your friend repeating snippets in the diner afterwards. (In Gilroy’s cutthroat private sector, surveillance is ubiquitous; Owen and Roberts must act like someone is always watching. Of course, we always are.)
As a director, Gilroy is mostly a heckuva screenwriter (he really does establish a New York location by tilting down from the Empire State Building), though a late, held two-shot seems to reference film theory theories of visual ambiguity, and his pacing keeps the time zone-hopping flashback structure from jet-lagging. Duplicity’s principal pleasures are in its old-school Hollywood wordiness: suave movie-star banter and chewy supporting parts, especially Tom Wilkinson and Paul Giamatti as nerve-janglingly on CEO meglos. And, appropriately given Duplicity’s subject, Gilroy spins his web around the greatest (and, if it’s not too much of a spoiler, the most literal) MacGuffin in recent memory.