14 March 2009
A few quick thoughts about Duplicity (78).
Unfortunately, I'm not assigned to review Duplicity, as both The Class and Che happen to open in Las Vegas next week. So I may as well make my case here (in speedy bullet-point fashion), especially since there are zero reviews out at this writing and I honestly have no idea what the consensus opinion is likely to be. That this film is less overtly weighty and much more twisty than Michael Clayton suggests to me that it's doomed to be underappreciated, but I hope I'm wrong.
• More than anyone else in Hollywood right now, Tony Gilroy understands how to open a movie. No throat-clearing, no "establishing"—he just tosses you in and trusts that you'll enjoy swimming out. His in medias res approach here isn't nearly as Wait WTF? as Tom Wilkinson's lunatic monologue in Clayton—he saves the real cognitive dissonance for a flashback in Rome about a third of the way through—but it's still immensely satisfying in its confidence and chutzpah, and he gets a look from Julia Roberts just before cutting to the title sequence that essentially summarizes his theme in a single glance.
• Speaking of the title sequence: legendary. Beyond inspired. I don't want to say any more for fear of ruining the experience for people (though you can see a little of it in the trailer). But already I was thinking, "Wow, this guy is a goddamn filmmaker," which I didn't really get from Clayton except in snippets (e.g. the deer). My Skandies Best Scene favorite is pretty much locked.
• As you probably know, the subject is corporate espionage. But as in all the best films, that's strictly a cover, and Gilroy isn't especially subtle—nor need he be, given the glossy-entertainment mode in which he's working—about using it as a sweeping metaphor for issues of trust in a romantic relationship. In fact the film has a unique structure in which it periodically shifts directly from text to subtext, with the latter rising upward in repeated flashbacks that seem expository but rarely actually are. At the same time, Gilroy can't resist giving his lovers dialogue that stresses how their profession makes them different from other people—he's playful enough to create an obvious metaphor and yet pretend to offer plausible deniability. But the central question here is still potent and unanswerable, which is to say absolutely perfect for drama: Given that almost every relationship is founded on lies (if only because courtship involves magnifying advantages and suppressing/hiding flaws), how can we proceed once we've determined that our inamorata is every bit as full of shit as we are? And how certain are we that this person we've chosen as a partner really has the same agenda that we do?
• Unfortunately—I almost want to say "tragically"—Gilroy allows his exceedingly clever plot to undercut his theme in the home stretch. The movie reaches what could have been a tremendously satisfying conclusion (it's the scene in the airport, which you also see a little of in the trailer: "Would it make any difference if I said I love you?" "If you said it or if I believed you?") and then proceeds to one final rug-pull, which turns out to be one too many. I actually quite like Gilroy's idea considered in a vacuum—it's a really bold choice, especially for a big mainstream film like this one—but in context it makes hash of the emotional stakes he's worked so hard to raise, so that the film now seems as if it's actually just about corporate espionage after all. (It also raises a few retrospective-logic questions, one in particular regarding Tom McCarthy's character.) I can see someone making the case that the very last shot restores that sense of troubling humanity—that's certainly Gilroy's intention—but it didn't quite work for me, I'm afraid.
• That big reservation aside, if the average Hollywood film were even half as consistently smart and witty and assured as Duplicity, I would never leave the Times Square multiplexes. There's not one wasted scene, not a single unmemorable supporting character. Gilroy scatters lovely and/or hilarious grace notes everywhere, from Roberts demanding that Owen rehearse their upcoming performance minus his robe to the alternate scheme that never quite happens (involving frozen pizza) to Clive Owen's New York associates performing dueling impressions of his crisp British accent. ("I own you." "I own you.") Even more than in Clayton, Gilroy just nails old-Hollywood effervescence, reminding you what a big star vehicle with a crafty Byzantine plot is supposed to look like. He's at once pioneer and throwback, and reason for hope.
• Oh yeah, the actors. Nothing award-worthy, but they're all good.
Posted by md'a at 1:15 PM