Whether it's the amnesiac superspy of the Bourne franchise or the weary law-firm fixer of Michael Clayton, screenwriter and director Tony Gilroy specializes in characters who wear so many masks, 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 silenced. 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 can trust each other — and a superb one.
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 that becomes a running motif, as if Gilroy were finally releasing a long suppressed giggle. Even the corridors of corporate malfeasance are a markedly less sinister place this time around. Whereas the fictional petrochemical giant of Michael Clayton considered staged suicides and car bombs to be the cost of doing business, the worst that one can expect from Equikrom, Duplicity's Procter & Gamble-like 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 have retired to the private sector. Ex-CIA agent Claire Stenwick (Julia Roberts) is already deep undercover as a mole inside Equikrom's chief rival, Burkett & Randle, when ex-MI6 man 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: penetrating 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 that Claire and Ray have crossed paths in the past half-decade.
Part of the fun in Gilroy's who's-conning-whom bauble, which pingpongs about in time and place from New York to Rome to London and back, comes from not knowing where it's headed next. But the rarer pleasure is the confidence that Gilroy inspires. Where he's taking us hardly matters at all. Like the tart-tongued screwball romps of the 1930s and Steven Soderbergh's Out of Sight, Duplicity luxuriates in implausible situations, ricocheting high-caliber dialogue and two immensely likable movie stars who possess the thing that no amount of intra-agency packaging can force into being: chemistry. After lumbering through the torpor-inducing hoops of The International, Owen here gets to travel in a more suitable Giorgio Armani style, and 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 dueling CEOs. A Darwinian at heart, minus the Coen brothers' irrepressible misanthropic streak, Gilroy seems drawn above all to creatures of habit and the ways 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, even when they may not need to. Like Gilroy, they exult not in the game but in the playing.